This week, the top stories from food, beverage and agriculture’s most important voices included lively debate as big-picture issues rose to the forefront:

  • Simultaneous unemployment and worker shortages in foodservice.
  • Sustainability stories in brand marketing.
  • Biden administration land conservation.

Short-staffed Restaurants

In contrast to the good news of restaurants reopening, the process of filling jobs has become difficult and complicated. After an April jobs report revealed a meager 266,000 new hires, the Biden administration faced criticism suggesting that additional weekly unemployment benefits are keeping some workers from seeking new employment. A good portion of the conversation focused on foodservice workers.

  • The New York Times summarized the situation from a broad perspective, covering the political bickering between Republicans and Democrats over the merits of relief spending and unemployment benefits.
  • In a three-part series starting on May 11, Restaurant Dive looked into the tight labor market, specifically recruitment methods and employee retention in foodservice. A week earlier, the website shared the findings of a One Fair Wage report that ranked the top three reasons restaurant workers are leaving jobs: low wages, safety concerns and harassment from customers.
  • A May 10 CNN article suggested that the workforce shortage in foodservice has provided a chance for introspection about wages and how workers will return to more difficult jobs after reopening.
  • ABC News described the tension between foodservice workers and employers, quoting FoodLab Detroit’s Devita Davison: “We’re literally watching the largest labor movement in modern American history happen in the form of paper signs taped to the windows of fast-food and fast-casual restaurants!”
  • The Counter explored how vaccine requirements for workers could attract more applicants. Fifty/50 Restaurant Group co-founder Scott Weiner tried this in his 15 Chicago restaurants, and tripled applications in the process.
  • Additionally, restaurants are increasing pay and providing other incentives to attract workers. On May 13, McDonald’s announced a 10% pay hike to its 36,000 workers at nearly 660 corporate-owned locations (Reuters).

Talking Sustainability

As part of the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network’s “Innovation Series,” our own Dennis Ryan led a panel on Thursday that focused on sustainability in food brand messaging. Leaders from Kellogg, DMI, Darigold and startup 8 Track Foods shared their firsthand perspectives in a lively conversation.

  • The goals are audacious. Kellogg’s Kim Sundy explained the strategy behind the company’s Better Day’s Commitment that addresses food insecurity and aims to help 3 billion people by 2030. Heather Oldani shared DMI’s 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals, which include reaching carbon neutrality over the next three decades. Make no small plans indeed.
  • Partnerships range widely. Sustainability requires collective, coordinated efforts. Marketers are reaching out to everyone from chefs and philanthropists to farmers. To reach a younger audience, DMI is working with social media stars like YouTube gamer Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, who has an amazing following of over 60 million subscribers (Capital Press).
  • Content is key. With her background as a journalist, Darigold’s Tafline Laylin proved that excellent content can provide vivid sustainability storytelling. The company’s Daily Churn blog goes deep into subjects like farm tech, carbon sequestration and even cannabis for cows.
  • Authenticity is all. Gen Z wants to be assured that product and brand values align with their own. They balk when the messages feel too slick. And plastic is increasingly an industry-wide challenge. Maggie Sadowsky from 8 Track Foods introduced us to a snappy new term — “wishcycling” — for when you put something in the bin without knowing for sure if it can be recycled.

Farmland on Layaway, Farmland on Layaway

On May 6, the Biden administration published a report on “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” including a plan to “[conserve] at least 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.” Given that farmland covers nearly 45% of the nation, this piqued the interest of agriculturalists. You don’t want to get between a farmer and their land.

  • Prior to the report’s release date, the plan was known primarily by the “30 by 30” goal. Farm Journal’s Tyne Morgan covered farmers’ fears of a federal “land grab” as early as April 16.
  • To address this concern, the report included an important principle: “Honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers.”
  • After seeing the report, industry groups and activists alike thanked the administration for considering feedback from stakeholders. National Corn Growers Association President John Linder remarked, “We’re glad they listened.”
  • Environmental activist group Friends of the Earth shared a common sentiment: “Not only do these communities know the space better than federal officials in DC, but they also can and should be part of the climate and conservation solution.”
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack clarified that USDA would utilize the existing Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave fields fallow for 10-year stints: “Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you.”

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

On Watch: Air Pollution

A National Academy of Sciences study concluded that air pollution from food production and agriculture is responsible for as many as 18,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. The study, which goes into print on May 18, caught our attention, but has yet to become widely shared. Jim Monroe from the National Pork Producers Council told The Washington Post that the study is “highly suspect … [It] irresponsibly draws conclusions based on modeling and estimates.”

That Rotten Meat High

Food Safety News managing editor Coral Beach warned of dangers associated with the latest internet craze to get high. People are eating raw, spoiled meat to achieve a “short-lived euphoria” that health experts say is caused by toxins present in rotten meat. “Bottom line … chasing the rotten meat dragon is more than a little dangerous. As with heroin, you never know when this trip will be your last,” Beach said. No. Just no.

Winning With Fish

The World Food Prize named Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted its 2021 award recipient for her discoveries in aquaculture and nutrition (Des Moines Register). During the May 11 announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thilsted “figured out how these nutrient-rich small fish can be raised locally and inexpensively. Now, millions of low-income families across many countries … are eating small fish regularly, dried and fresh … giving kids and breastfeeding mothers key nutrients that will protect children for a lifetime.”

McVax Campaign

Ad Age reported on a partnership between the Biden administration and McDonald’s as part of a vaccine awareness campaign. Their “We Can Do This” effort will appear on McCafe cups, home delivery materials and the fast-food giant’s Times Square billboard ads this summer. McDonald’s spokesperson Genna Gent added: “We’re proud to enter this partnership to provide trusted, independently verified information about COVID-19 vaccines to our customers in the nearly 14,000 communities we serve.”

Subway Saganaki

Earlier this week Subway announced its Fresh Melts sandwiches, advertising not double but triple portions of melted cheese. Sounds great to us, but not so much for the chain’s franchise group, who deemed the sandwiches unsafe in a recent statement. The “franchise warning notice” cited concerns not only about employees getting burned in the process of making the sandwiches, but also damage to the franchisee’s toasters.

Carb-loading Cavemen

Research shared by Science Mag shows that our Neanderthal cousins ate more than just a meaty diet. The recent study looked at bacteria found on Neanderthal teeth and revealed that their diets consisted of more starchy foods, which helped fuel rapidly growing brains. They probably had to carbo-load for the Tigris-Euphrates marathon.