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First Person: Reflections on COVID's impact on the food service industry

A Publix grocery store cashier and customer in Florida wear face masks and gloves. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A Publix grocery store cashier and customer in Florida wear face masks and gloves. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In April 2020, we took a look at what the pandemic exposed about the fragility of America’s food system, an essential supply chain that few give much thought to as long as milk and bread are on the shelves.

Food workers all along that supply chain were vulnerable, making the entire country vulnerable too. Bob LaBonne Jr. is president and CEO of the LaBonne’s Market in Connecticut. And for him, April 2020 was a shock:

BOB LaBONNE [Tape]: Like nothing we’ve ever seen. Every day you just are going nonstop, and it’s just amazing. The response from our crew, they just continue to perform under, you know, really scary conditions. And that’s the whole thing — is trying to keep them safe.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Well, we got Bob back on the line this winter and he gave us this update.

LaBONNE: This summer was just absolutely brutal. Between the shortage of people, with manufacturing plants having COVID where they’re short-staffed and the trucking shortages nationwide and fuel up, it’s just a perfect storm of complications and frustration.

CHAKRABARTI: The family business goes back six generations, but Bob says it’s the people of the LaBonne’s Market that define it.

LaBONNE: Words can’t describe the appreciation that I have for all our people. When they just, especially those first few months. When so many people just said work from home. We couldn’t, just like the medical people, we had to go to work. People had to eat and people had to get taken care of. So they had no idea during those uncertain times whether they were going to get it, they were going to bring it to their families, yet they came to work.

And it was nice to see the world recognize the food industry as essential workers. And our people stepped up, and they’re still doing it months later. And, you know, people like overtime. But when you’re doing it for months on end, it gets old and they miss their family. So we really just said, just dial it back, do the best you can, and it’s OK. I’d rather keep everyone’s health and safety in their minds intact.

And we’ve done other things like Associate Appreciation Days. And we just started, right through the rest of the year, all our associates get 30% off their groceries, just as another form of appreciation for everyone, for the extra mile.

For me personally, the most difficult time, it was last October. And my wife was watching the show, The Good Doctor, and they were starting to have episodes that included stories about COVID. And the first six or seven minutes of that episode, they were showing nurses that were in the ICU, FaceTiming family members as they pulled the plug on the respirator. And I see the tears of my wife rolling down her cheeks.

And she said, That was me. I had to do that back in April and May. And she said, I don’t share everything I see and do at the hospital. So that was probably my toughest time. Because I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t. There was nothing I could say or do, just hug her and say, You know, I’m here for you, and I feel bad that you had to do that again alone, with no relatives to help be there when their family member passed. So, that was a tough time.

I’m looking at what the next 20 years of my life is, and what our plans are and definitely want to spend time with my family. I’m trying not to work the crazy hours that we all were working last year. For me, it’s more worrying about everyone else. That’s been my M.O.

And as long as everyone else is good, then I’m good. You know, I want to make sure they’re taken care of first, and then I’m second.

So during all this, one special moment in our family is we had our first grandson that was born last December 7th, and he is just a ray of sunshine. He just has brought so much fun and excitement and joy in our lives. So he’s just a special little kid and can’t wait to have him start running around in a couple of months.

CHAKRABARTI: Bob LaBonne is president and CEO of LaBonne’s Market in Connecticut.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.