Bulk buying: How one British Columbian initiative is helping protect Canada’s food-sector workers against COVID-19

James Donaldson
James Donaldson is the CEO of BC Food and Beverage, the organization behind the creation of an online portal launched to supply PPE to food-sector workers across Canada. (Photo courtesy James Donaldson)

When COVID-19 began to spread in Canada, there was a surge in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) across the country. While health care workers were prioritized, other essential services – such as the food industry – struggled to find proper safety equipment for their staff.

Representatives from all points of Canada's food supply knew that if PPE ran out, food production would be affected, which could lead to shortages on both grocery-store shelves and the tables of Canadians.

During this crisis, a quick look at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada's Made in Canada Project website shows that many organizations have had to pivot and find unique solutions to their challenges, often in partnership with government. This is the story of how one such organization, BC Food and Beverage, led the charge in securing PPE for people working in the food sector in British Columbia. It's an example of how something that started small grew, thanks to support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, into a country-wide solution for the Canadian food industry.

Beginning in British Columbia

While BC Food and Beverage is British Columbia's leading advocacy organization for the food-processing industry, never did James Donaldson, their CEO, think they would one day be involved in buying protective equipment on behalf of its 475 member companies.

"Almost out of the blue, we started getting flooded with calls from groups who were having trouble accessing PPE," he says.

An employee works on a PPE shipment, facing a wall of health care supplies
An employee works on a PPE shipment, facing a wall of health care supplies. (Photo provided by BC Food and Beverage)

Donaldson works with a close-knit group of employees, with each member caring deeply about the industry. He describes a "tinge of fear that increased" in the early days of the pandemic. "There was an absolute consensus that we needed to act," Donaldson recalls. "We couldn't see ourselves just standing on the sidelines of the food industry. We're a small team and a passionate group, it didn't sit right for us to just let this PPE shortage unfold."

Not only was supply running low, prices for PPE were rising steadily – by several hundred percent in some cases, from what Donaldson could see. "PPE supplies are being stockpiled around the world," he explains. Donaldson was keenly aware of the domino effect if the virus were to strike workers at the heart of Canada's food supply. "That was the impetus for us to act quickly."

A worker takes measurements of a box filled with health care supplies
A worker takes measurements of a box filled with health care supplies. (Photo provided by BC Food and Beverage)

Protecting Our People

Donaldson and his team launched the Protecting Our People PPE program in May 2020 to secure a local supply of protective gear. The initiative supports food and beverage companies throughout British Columbia by helping them find and purchase protective equipment at affordable prices.

How did they do it? Well, to begin with, they needed financing. Donaldson reached out to the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C., an industry-led, not-for-profit society that delivers programs serving the province's agriculture and agri-food sector. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, they in turn worked with the province of British Columbia and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to secure $2 million in immediate funding.

Next, Donaldson needed to gain access to a market that he and his team had never worked in before. To avoid markups on products and to pass along the savings, BC Food and Beverage successfully connected with groups that procured disposable gloves, masks and other quality PPE for health-care workers. "We had to peel back the layers to get direct access to manufacturers," Donaldson says, admitting it took some effort to find reputable suppliers and secure quality products.

To carry out the order fulfillment and handle customer service, Evolution Fulfillment was brought in to handle the demand.

It took a lot of coordination, but, as Donaldson says, it was all worth it.

"We didn't want to be too flashy about it," he adds. "We're trying to fill a need, not operate as a business. For stores to stay open, for food to stay on tables, workers need to stay safe."

By the early summer, the PPE program was up and running in B.C. and the provincial industry was already very happy. Little did Donaldson know that things would soon ramp up further.

Boxes of nitrile gloves are stacked together, to be delivered through the Protecting Our People initiative
Boxes of nitrile gloves are stacked together, to be delivered through the Protecting Our People initiative. (Photo provided by BC Food and Beverage)

Growing from coast to coast

As BC Food and Beverage was successfully rolling out the Protecting Our People initiative in British Columbia, officials at AAFC were looking at ways to bring PPE equipment to all agri-food organizations in Canada, large or small.

On AAFC's end, the department was encouraged by BC Food and Beverage's early success in British Columbia. Employees began to wonder if it could be rolled out to the rest of the country.

AAFC officials contacted James Donaldson to discuss expanding BC Food and Beverage's Protecting Our People initiative beyond provincial borders. The original mandate would be the same: to being easy access to PPE for agri-sector employees across the country with a financial contribution from the department.

Shipments of PPE await delivery at the Evolution Fulfillment facility
Shipments of PPE await delivery at the Evolution Fulfillment facility. (Photo provided by BC Food and Beverage)

National-level discussions followed, between AAFC and members of the food and beverage industry. Donaldson could hardly believe that his team's idea was now going to help people across the country. Once the details were worked out, resources were quickly secured to roll out Protecting Our People to workers across Canada in the summer of 2020. So far, it has been very well-received – faced with a potential second wave of the coronavirus, it was clear that the food and beverage industry needed the peace of mind, knowing that PPE would always be a click away.

While Donaldson doesn't want to be in the PPE business forever, discussions on the initiative's next steps are well underway.

For small-medium agri-food companies, their workers are at the heart of the food sector. A PPE supply means that people are protected at the worksite, and can go home healthy to their families.

The program is available to small-to-medium-sized Canadian enterprises in the food supply chain. Interested enterprises may consult the Protecting Our People page on the British Columbia Food and Beverage site.

A description and link to the initiative is also available on the AAFC website under Public health guidance and personal protective equipment (PPE) resources and on the B.C. government's Ministry of Agriculture's Response to COVID-19 page.

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