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Square Roots in New York City and COVID-19: Our focus on safely growing food for people in need.

Square Roots | 03.15.20

Square Roots COVID-19 Update

Clearly we are in exceptional times with COVID-19.

In New York City we are:

As a business we need to think differently.

As a priority, we have to ensure our team’s safety as well as the safety of the wider community. The single best way to do that is to enforce social distancing—to stay at least six feet away from each other. The simplest way to do that is for everyone to work from home. Many companies we look up to—including Patagonia and Apple—have told their employees to do exactly that.

However, we are also a company that produces food. We have farms, and farmers, and we can grow food to feed people. No one knows exactly where this situation is heading, but we’re already seeing supermarket shelves emptying in New York. Sooner rather than later, food supply will surely become an issue. So it feels like we have a moral obligation to use the resources we have—skilled farmers and our farm-tech platform—to keep growing food, and to find ways to get that food to as many people as possible.

Growing food and keeping people safe.

We have analyzed this carefully and determined that there is a way to balance both objectives—i.e. to keep growing food, in a safe way for our team and others. But it requires changes in our operations and the day-to-day workflow on our farms.

For context: a typical farm day in Brooklyn sees 3-4 farmers and other staff working closely together in each of our grow zones—harvesting, packing, cleaning, and more, all in a tightly knit, well-orchestrated flow, optimized for quality, efficiency, and revenue, guided by “lean farming” principles. Clearly, that doesn’t work in an environment where you are trying to enforce social distancing.

At the same time, one of the “riskiest” tasks we perform given the current environment is distribution. Our team in New York rides a fleet of e-trikes to distribute our food, dropping off packed produce to almost 100 retailers across the city, meeting and greeting (i.e. being in very close proximity to) buyers and stockers and many other workers who make a retail store function. Clearly it would be very difficult for us to continue doing that in a safe way right now.

This weekend, we have assessed all our processes to determine what changes we can immediately make to ensure our focus is on growing food while still doing our part to flatten the curve. For example, we have decided to stop the time-intensive and people-intensive task in our current process of packing harvested food into small clam shells, ready for retail distribution. Instead, we are going to pack quickly in bulk bags (as always, with gloves and love). Additionally, for now, we are also ceasing “high touch” e-trike distribution from our operations until further notice.

By making a series of similar changes—i.e. prioritizing the actual growing of food over the wider spectrum of tasks required to run a seed-to-shelf, vertically integrated food business—we can manage our farms without compromising food safety with a much smaller team. And we can safely engineer new workflows in the farm where social distancing needs are met. Any farmers or other staff not absolutely required to manage this temporary, slimmed-down operation, have been asked to stay at home on full pay.

Getting the food we grow to the people who need it most.

Given these decisions, we are temporarily changing our business model in Brooklyn. This week, you will not find Square Roots packaged products on the shelves of retail grocery stores. (Although we continue to talk with many of our retail partners to determine how best we can work together in the coming weeks).

Instead, to get the food we grow to people who need it most, we have decided to extend our existing partnership with Rethink Food NYC - who are safely creating meals for those in need from their kitchens in the Navy Yards. On Monday, we are going to donate *all* the food we harvest in Brooklyn to them. Rethink is working closely with public officials and restaurants to make meal distribution possible during this crisis. They themselves have also architected their own processes and workflows to ensure safety for their employees and the people they serve. We applaud every other food producer who is also working with Rethink. Together, we will get as much food as possible to as many people in need as possible—in a safe way that reduces risk of further spreading of the virus. This is the best way to deploy our resources and focus our efforts right now.

Obviously, this is a very fluid situation, and we are constantly assessing information to make the best decisions in line with our mission of “bringing local, real food to people in cities around the world by empowering next-gen leaders in urban farming.” And obviously this applies to our farm operation in Grand Rapids, Michigan as well as New York City. We will do our best to provide transparency and clarity on this blog and through our social channels. But please feel free to email me directly if you have any questions or additional thoughts. ([email protected])

Stay safe!

Tobias Peggs

Square Roots CEO

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