Blog 13

Food companies can help slow the spread of COVID-19

Blog 13 in our blog series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, is from Myriam Sidibe and Zoe Williams, both from the Harvard Kennedy School and both with extensive private sector experience. They argue that responsible businesses will do all they can to protect food supply chains in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis and to deliver messages around best practices for hygiene and social distancing. They cite examples from the US and Kenya of social enterprises that are keeping school feeding going even when schools are shut down and retail businesses with workers on the front line who have been enlisted in stopping the spread of the virus.

-- Lawrence Haddad

In this era of social and physical distancing, food becomes an important element of our newly confined lives. We wonder when we will get more fresh fruits and vegetables and where our produce has been.

Food companies are essential in enabling many to stay in isolation and helping communities contain COVID-19. Comforting food also provides an emotional benefit during the crisis. Business Fights Poverty compiled a framework for how businesses can respond to coronavirus, highlighting two strategies food companies can use to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

First, they can leverage their capabilities and distribution chains to deliver essential food items to communities—helping them to meet nutritional needs while people stay safe at home. Second, food networks can use their brands to distribute public health information aiming to prevent the spread of the virus, such as promoting handwashing and social distancing, and sharing the latest health information on the virus.



Businesses can start by ensuring people have access to emergency food.

Several food organizations have already responded to COVID-19 by committing to deliver food to children and families around the world. Food for Education, a non-profit that provides school meals in Kenya, is using its Tap2Eat technology to deliver six weeks of essential food items to 30,000 families. Revolution Foods, a school lunch vendor in the United States, developed contingency plans before schools closed so they could continue to deliver government-subsidized meals to students during mandatory school closures. Other local food businesses and non-profits can mobilize and collaborate to ensure children and families do not go hungry during the pandemic.

Meeting basic food needs helps food networks continue operations while normal business is disrupted, with important benefits to communities responding to COVID-19. Access to emergency food enables families to meet nutritional needs when they are sick or unable to work. Children who receive meals at school are particularly vulnerable to poor nutrition during school closures. Preventing the onset of hunger, which weakens the immune system, will strengthen people’s ability to fight the virus. Food insecurity will become more acute throughout the duration of the crisis as people spend their savings, increasing demand for emergency food provision over time. Delivery of food baskets will also reduce the need for people to leave their homes, reducing the risk of spreading or contracting the virus.



In addition to helping meet emergency food needs, food networks should use their distribution chains to deliver best practices for hygiene and social distancing.

Businesses must commit to support national public health campaigns. Food networks may be the only viable distribution network to bring health information and supplies to rural communities where they source their fresh products. Many businesses are already mobilizing to disseminate information on handwashing and social distancing. Public and private organizations recently convened the collaborative National Business Compact Coalition in Kenya to accelerate information sharing on best-practices for hygiene during the coronavirus outbreak. The compact focuses on activating local businesses to support government initiatives to contain the spread of the virus. The founder of Twiga, a member of the compact, is sharing advice on how to protect the food system during the pandemic. Founder Grant Brooke says, “Mama mbogas, dukas, kiosks owners, and food workers are going to be on the frontline of this pandemic, and need to be enlisted in stopping the spread.”

Food networks must continue to feed the world during the global pandemic and leverage their skills and resources to help contain the virus, too.  Because we can stay home when we have the food we need.



About the authors

Myriam Sidibe is a senior fellow at the Mossavar Rahmani Centre of Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth through Purpose.”  She recently co-founded the National Business Compact on Coronavirus in Kenya and is sharing the model across various countries.

Zoe Williams is on education leave from McKinsey & Company to pursue a master’s in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She has a background in healthcare analytics and is studying how food systems can improve public health.


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