New Podcast Features Sugar Industry’s Community Efforts During COVID-19

Our friends over at Farm Policy Facts have released a new episode of their podcast Groundwork, featuring two sweet stories about how the sugar industry has stepped up during the pandemic.

The episode starts in the middle of a sugarcane field in St. James Parish, Louisiana, where there stands a giant hamburger. Or rather, a farm plot in the shape of a hamburger that is growing each of its component ingredients, such as wheat for the bun or soybeans that will eventually become an ingredient in mayonnaise.

This is the Fast Food Farm, a nonprofit teaching farm, founded by Denny Hymel about 20 years ago to fill a pressing educational need in her community.

The Fast Food Farm teaches children where their food comes from and it was planning one of its largest events of the year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While the health crisis shut down schools, it didn’t put a stop to the need to educate the children that normally visit the farm on field trips.

“I’ve got to do something… how do I teach about agriculture to these children when they’re not in school and they can’t come to [the farm],” Denny recalls saying.

So, like any good fast food place, Denny opened a drive-through.

Once a week, for five weeks, Denny put together hundreds of “ag-tivities” and passed them out to local families in order to provide a safe and socially distant learning opportunity. One of the ag-tivities taught children about the lifecycle of butterflies while another provided the materials to put together birdfeeders. Needless to say, they were a huge hit with kids and parents alike.

“It was such a tremendous appreciation from those parents when they came through thanking us for doing this,” she says.

Taking care of the earth, and each other, is a big part of the mission of the Louisiana-based Fast Food Farm. That includes investing in sustainable communities by growing and donating vegetables to a local charity which distributes them to the needy – which they felt was even more critical to continue during COVID-19.

Groundwork then takes a trip up north to Minnesota’s sugarbeet country to hear the incredible steps that American Crystal Sugar Company has taken to help keep their employees safe.

Lisa Borgen, Vice President of Administration at the American Crystal Sugar Company, says the company moved fast to make safety changes in reaction to the pandemic. It posted guidance around the facility early and limited meetings. It was important to American Crystal that they keep their employees healthy and support them during this challenging time.

“We added additional occupational health nurses so that we would have a nurse in every location so that all employees could have a resource to talk to personally,” Lisa said. They also began taking temperatures as soon as they could procure thermometers and mandated masks and other face coverings in their facilities.

“All of those things we felt were critically important to make sure that we weren’t spreading germs around the factory,” Lisa continued. “And additionally, we gave every employee a bank of 40 hours of what we call COVID sick time… because really, we want people to stay home when they’re not feeling well.”

American Crystal also found a way to share its appreciation for its hardworking employees while also supporting community restaurants. American Crystal awarded each of its employees with a $75 gift card for restaurants throughout the Red River Valley.

Keeping the supply of sugar moving to food makers was also important, she says.

“If we were unable to get that get that sugar to [food manufacturers] and they were unable to make those products, then the country as a whole would have a shortage of all the things that people love,” she says. “And sugar isn’t just in cookies and candy and drinks. Sugar is in almost everything you buy on the shelf.”

We know the whole industry is pulling together and working hard to keep our important product available for American consumers, and we are so proud to feature these two incredible sectors of our industry in this month’s Groundwork podcast. Listen to the entire episode here.