Rising to the challenge: Companies keep drivers safe, customers stocked during COVID-19 pandemic

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Chris Adams and her dog in front of a truck
Veritable Vegetable driver Chris Adams poses in front of her truck with her dog, Rascal. In addition to local deliveries, the company delivers down to the Mexican border and into Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. (Courtesy: Kenworth)

KIRKLAND, Wash. ― When San Francisco became one of the first cities in the U.S. to implement shelter-in-place orders, business changed for Veritable Vegetable. Gone were many of the company’s corporate customers, which included restaurants, caterers, corporate campuses and schools, but the demand from its grocery-store customers increased.

“It was like Thanksgiving,” said Chris Adams, director of transportation for Veritable Vegetable. “Everyone was flocking to grocery stores and we had to shift our efforts to meet that need. It was a tremendous initial spike.”

The Bay Area company operates a fleet of 20 Kenworth long-haul trucks, mostly T680s, and has seven T270 and T370 hybrids, all purchased through NorCal Kenworth. In addition to local deliveries, the company delivers down to the Mexican border and into Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

“The shift in business meant we had an opportunity to consolidate loads and be more efficient,” Adams said. “That’s been one positive.”

Once a long-haul delivery is made, the driver is routed to a farm or warehouse for a backhaul and returns to Veritable Vegetable’s distribution center with organic fruit, vegetables and other perishable food. From there, food is sorted and palletized for shipments to independent grocery stores and other customers.

“It’s been somewhat of a challenge with the backhauls,” Adams said. “Some locations are short-staffed, so it takes longer for loading. Plus, a few warehouses have been closed for deep cleaning.”

According to Adams, Veritable Vegetable drivers have been nothing short of remarkable.

“They know their work is providing an essential service to the communities we service, which includes the farmers we support. The health and safety of our drivers is our top priority,” she said. “We’ve provided them with more robust sanitation training and equipped the trucks with cleaning caddies that include disinfectant, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. We adjusted delivery protocols to eliminate signatures while reducing contact. We’re also installing microwaves in our Kenworth T680 sleeper trucks so drivers can cook onboard. Upon return from a run, we sanitize the cab so it’s ready to go the next morning.”

While Adams said business is operating close to normal, she is heartened by how the public has responded to truckers.

“I made a delivery myself to Truckee (a mountain town in California). When I unloaded a pallet of vegetables, customers at the store stopped and applauded,” she said. “That was something I won’t forget. We’ve been seeing an outpouring of support for what we do. We’re all in this together.”

In Arkansas, trucking companies have charged ahead to keep retail stores stocked with needed food and supplies.

A full-service refrigerated carrier, KARR Transportation in Mountain Home, Arkansas, delivers fresh produce and frozen foods from farmers and producers to distributors throughout the 48 contiguous states. To meet increased demand on its own side of the country, the company’s fleet of 51 trucks, mostly Kenworth T680s purchased from MHC Kenworth in Nashville, Tennessee, has focused on routes in the Midwest and Southeast. Because drivers are not getting their usual miles, KARR is subsidizing them with guaranteed pay.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride because of rapidly changing orders,” said Al Beers, president and CEO of KARR Transportation.

Most runs can be handled in a normal day, but that’s not all on the road, Beers said. Even with scheduled pickups and deliveries, drivers have been forced to wait up to 14 hours on either end because of staffing issues at warehouses. Many shippers and receivers are requiring drivers to stay in their trucks and are no longer personally signing waybills in an effort to limit cross-contamination. Instead, they’re collecting signatures electronically, a move Beers hopes will become the “new normal” to improve efficiency.

Having the company’s Kenworth T680s equipped with APUs and 76-inch sleepers is a blessing when wait times are long, Beers said. One of KARR’s regular customers, which produces ready-made salads and healthy snack trays for convenience stores, keeps the drivers’ fridges stocked with food and drinks.

Even with no shelter-in-place orders in Arkansas, KARR Transportation locked down its Mountain Home facilities to ensure that the company was able to do its part.

“We geared up and had everything in place to protect our drivers and office staff. We even put in a new phone system and internet apps so that we could work remotely and still sort of be ‘virtually’ in the same room,” Beers said. “Luckily, we haven’t had anyone get sick. It’s easy to get run-down when you’re working long hours. So, we’ve been doing everything we can, making sure drivers wear protective gear, and even take vitamin supplements, to keep them as healthy as possible.”

Beers said the team at KARR has noticed a new appreciation for drivers since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Even President Trump brought the role of the transportation industry to the forefront, which is phenomenal, and I hope it stays that way,” he said. “I can’t say enough about, not just my drivers, but all the drivers out there. They have really stepped up and shown their patriotism. We had a meeting with all of our drivers to get everybody’s thoughts on the situation. The comment I heard most often was, ‘We’re here to supply America.”’

While the retail food segment has seen a huge change in demand, so have food banks. With much of the country still in shelter in place, the subsequent loss of jobs has been felt. Food banks have been racing to provide enough food for those in need.

houston Foodbank truck in front of a sunset
The Houston Food Bank (a member of Feeding America) serves 18 counties, and demand has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Courtesy: Kenworth)

The Houston Food Bank (a member of Feeding America) serves 18 counties, and demand has never been greater.

“Last year we distributed 104 million meals, and we are on pace to exceed that,” said Jose Campuzano, who serves as director of logistics for the food bank. “Right now, we are distributing at 150% of our usual operation. That means we’re delivering about 750,000 pounds of food each day. Before the current situation, food distributions at partner locations could see up to 250 families, and now some partners are reporting to seeing double and triple the amount of families. Partners are also reporting serving people who have never sought food assistance before.”

Using a fleet of 39 Kenworths, mostly Kenworth T270s and T370s purchased through Performance Kenworth in Houston, the food bank changed to a hub-and-spoke operation after Hurricane Harvey.

“That event changed out our logistics structure,” Campuzano said. “Today we have 21 hubs for food collection; then (we) distribute to 120 spokes. Those spokes are increasing though, as we figure out new areas where we can distribute food. We’re looking at all options, including stadium parking lots. We just need to get food out to the people.”

According to Campuzano, the trucks typically average about 90,000 miles per month but are now logging more than 150,000 miles each month to keep pace with the increase in distribution.

“We also take CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines very seriously, maintaining our safe distances and wearing protective gear. Protecting ourselves and our volunteers is mandatory,” he said.

“What’s been priceless is the number of volunteers who have come forward. That’s always been the Houston spirit ― neighbors getting involved to help neighbors,” he continued. “We’ve also been informed that the National Guard will provide 200 soldiers to help with large-scale distributions, sorting and packing food, and warehouse duties. This will help immensely.”

Three-quarters of the food distributed are perishables ― fruits and vegetables ― with most of the remaining food being dry/canned and dairy products. The food bank uses 25 refrigerated trailers.

“Since we border Mexico, we’re getting donated fruit from that country, plus fruit and vegetables from Florida and apples from Washington,” Campuzano said. “Everyone is stepping up to donate, yet we still have needs. (That’s) why we put out the call for donations. Every dollar donated helps provide three meals.”

For more information or to donate, visit www.houstonfoodbank.org.

For over 30 years, the objective of The Trucker editorial team has been to produce content focused on truck drivers that is relevant, objective and engaging. After reading this article, feel free to leave a comment about this article or the topics covered in this article for the author or the other readers to enjoy. Let them know what you think! We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

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