Remember when you were a kid and you stared stubbornly at the green beans you hated on your dinner plate? Your mother said something about being ungrateful. Fast forward to 2020. Here’s an updated version of a mother’s rebuke: “Eat your quinoa! You have no idea how many people it took and how dangerous it was to get that to your plate.”
That includes your organic chicken, buttercrunch lettuce or almond milk.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, disrupted our food supply chain. That includes the lives and livelihoods of farmers, growers and ranchers, as well as food processors, manufacturers, distributors and retail store employees. Thousands of chickens, cows and hogs have been destroyed without their meat ever being harvested; thousands of gallons of milk have been dumped before being delivered.
COVID-19 has brazenly gone into meatpacking plants across the United States, causing workers’ deaths. It’s also is lurking on the shopping cart you use. And there are foods harder to buy than others, including beef. Other empty shelves are the result of people who still hoard. We complain because our favorite brand of frozen pizza is sold out, grumble when fresh Brussels sprouts are nowhere to be seen. Still, Ohioans can find most of what is normally on our grocery store lists.
Real people — unsung food heroes — are one of the main reasons the food supply chain is still functioning in this country as well as it has been during the crisis. Mothers who are grocery store cashiers work because they can’t afford to stay home with their young children even though they still face COVID-19 exposure. Bakery truck delivery drivers make sure big-chain grocers, as well as small mom-and-pop corner stores, have rye bread for their customers.
Many Northeast Ohio food heroes are probably overworked, but proud. We spotlight several.
Catherine Chuha Wolcott
You think you are busy.
“A farmer is an accountant, vet, meteorologist, machine operator, financial planner, computer operator and family and animal caretaker,” says Catherine Chuha Wolcott, a first-generation farmer and owner of G.A.R. Horizons farm and the Horizons Local Goods store in Chardon. “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off is the only thing that comes to mind about all this. Some days I do not eat breakfast or lunch. I feed the dog, husband and stepson, but then grab my coffee and go. I feel like I am not being a good wife or stepmother some days. But I am trying to work and juggle many tasks.”
Wolcott’s husband, Steve, helps work in the fields (the farm raises the majority of its own feed for its beef, pork, chicken and lamb), but he also has a day job. In 2009, Wolcott began metamorphosing from a hobby farmer to a full-fledged agricultural businesswoman. She began by selling her meat products at farmers markets and then opened her retail store in 2018. Today, customers may also find locally sourced eggs, milk, pierogies, coffee, goat’s milk fudge, cheese, maple syrup, honey, pickles and sugar cookies. COVID-19 has greatly added to Wolcott’s workload, but also brought some new opportunities.
“We’ve had many new customers,” says Wolcott, adding that pre-virus days she was happy with about 25 customers on a Friday, but now serves about 70 that day and again on Saturdays. “There is no way anyone could have prepared for the amount of product that is moving.
“We will need to find other local farmers who have the same growing practices we do to help us supply our store until fall when we can harvest our beef. We will only buy local and know how the animals were raised and how they were fed,” she insists. “Buying local is the best thing to do.”
Taking care of farm business during this virus-colored spring and summer had challenges, but also unexpected side effects. It was easier for Wolcott to get appointments at the vet when this year’s calves needed vaccinated. Also, Wolcott’s local feed mill had an adequate supply of feed supplements and “baby chick starter,” so there were no shortages that could have negatively affected her schedule.
Wolcott plans to expand the size of her store this year by knocking down a divider wall and taking over an area formerly used by her husband. She also needs a walk-in freezer to help with storage and time management.
“We have not raised any prices. Everything costs a lot of money [to run], and we can only upgrade slowly,” says Wolcott, whose maternal relatives were the third family to help found Chardon. “It’s been very overwhelming. But we’ve had a lot of family support during this time when I need extra freezer space or help to package orders.”
Wolcott says she’s not sure what happens next because some people will change their food shopping habits for good even after the worst of the COVID-19 crisis is over. “We want to keep our new customers,” she says.
John C. Young
Euclid Fish Co.
Euclid Fish Co. of Mentor was founded in 1944 by Chef John Comella and his wife, Betty. Comella did a little bit of everything, from working on Lake Erie fishing boats to selling clams and oysters from horse-drawn wagons to catering clambakes. His descendants say he had a great sense of what people would like to eat. But he could never have imagined how COVID-19 would affect the company he began or the food industry in general.
John C. Young, today’s owner and president of Euclid Fish Co., represents the company’s third generation of wholesale fish and shellfish distributors. His sons, Vice President of Sales Charles L. Young and Vice President of Operations John V. Young, are the fourth. The company supplies products (including cheese, imported oil and vinegar and seasonal specialties) to restaurants, hotels, casinos and specialty stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
In general, the fresh fish and frozen seafood industries have not been hit as hard by COVID-19 as beef production. President Young claims his product availability has “been fabulous,” although there was some initial trouble getting fresh products from overseas. But the company has had to make necessary health and safety adjustments, including decreasing delivery days during the week.
“The plant is basically shut down to anyone except employees on the job. No deliveries were allowed in. You have to wait outside,” explains Young.
Seafood lovers can actually find some good buys right now. Many restaurants have reopened, but until those are completely back to selling the amount of fresh fish and other seafood they were serving during pre-virus times, demand is down, and prices are down.
“Sea scallops are a good buy. And there is a resurgence in trout. It tastes good, it is a good value, and it has a good identity. People know how they want to cook it, smoke it or stuff it,” says Young, who adds scallops to his personal list of favorites along with Skuna Bay salmon and swordfish.
Young says the food problems the country has been seeing because of COVID-19 have made people think about their food sources. Even in recent pre-virus times, more customers and restaurant owners have wanted to know if the fish and seafood they are eating have been obtained using acceptable sustainability practices, according to Young. That desire to know has been heightened.
Euclid Fish Co. is one of only 11 seafood distributors in North America that is a member of Sea Pact. The goal of the alliance is to make the seafood industry more eco-friendly and improve fishing and fish farming systems.
Fresh Fork Market, Ohio City Provisions, Wholesome Valley Farm
Food source entrepreneur Trevor Clatterbuck says Ohio has an opportunity to become a leader in processing and providing meat products if the state’s Department of Agriculture could “figure out a way slaughterhouses could increase their capacity.”
Clatterbuck realizes the difficulties in implementing such changes, especially during COVID-19 times. But he says all options must be considered, including additional work shifts and utilizing the incarcerated to add to the labor force.
Clatterbuck is the founder of Fresh Fork Market, a food membership service in its 12th season that offers products from about 75 local farmers. Yes, he says, he’s the guy who arranges “weekly food pickups from the back of a truck in remote, dark parking lots” to Cleveland families.
Clatterbuck came to Cleveland in 2004 via West Virginia to study at Case Western Reserve University. He thought he was going to be a lawyer. But he got sidetracked by a farm tractor.
Clatterbuck also is co-owner of Ohio City Provisions, a butcher shop and grocery store. In addition, he raises cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys (think no hormones, antibiotics, non-GMO) at his Wholesome Valley Farm in Holmes County. Fortunately for his customers, Clatterbuck went into the COVID-19 crisis this spring with a good inventory and freezers full of meat.
“But the demand for beef is hard for us to keep up with,” says Clatterbuck, a whole animal butcher who won’t kill an animal just for a small percent of the most desirable cuts, including rib-eye or T-bone steaks. He saves his center cuts for his retail customers, not restaurants that would require a greater amount. “It’s not that I don’t have the animals, but because we can’t get them killed fast enough. Meat cutters are few and far between. It’s not like you can call a temp service and have someone tomorrow. Also, once the [government] stimulus checks and unemployment bonuses came out, we pretty much couldn’t hire anyone. They were making more money on unemployment. It was very frustrating for a while.”
Clatterbuck has traded hogs for beef to other locals in the meat industry, and encourages his retail store and butcher shop staff (many with culinary training) to help customers learn about and try unfamiliar cuts of meat. Both actions are ways he’s trying to ease the frustration of customers looking for beef.
“We have been extremely busy, and so far, our customers have been extraordinarily understanding. Customers understand we are small, limited and dedicated to quality,” says Clatterbuck. His goal is to create a direct supply food chain to customers — one that a virus can’t touch.
Urban Bulk Foods
Customers proudly show photos of the loaves of bread they make to Dennis Paszkowski, owner of Urban Bulk Foods in Lakewood. Since COVID-19 turned our eating habits upside down, more people are cooking and baking at home. Paszkowski, who opened his business in 2015 and has been at his present location for the past three years, says he has “sold a lot of flour” since the pandemic began. And yeast? He can hardly keep the essential bread-making ingredient in stock.
“Bread making is really an art if you actually make a loaf of bread and not use a bread machine,” says Paszkowski. “Bread is beautiful if you score it, weave it. … There are lots of things you can do.”
Paszkowski’s store is filled with dried fruits, beans, grains, spices, rubs, candy, cereal, pasta, snacks and other items, many premeasured and priced in plastic bags or containers. There also are herbs, jams and jellies — some from Ohio’s Amish country.
Customers can buy cheese, milk and eggs, although there were minor shortages of those last two products in the early days of the virus when inventories and distribution methods had to be rearranged. His store is an oasis for those who want to stock up on items for “do-it-yourself-meals,” as well as ready-to-eat items.
The store owner has made some changes for his safety and his customers. Plexiglas now provides protective barriers and jars of clean pens and used/dirty pens for signing credit card transactions sit on the counter. A limit of three customers at a time can be in his small store. He also posted 40 signs strategically around his shop politely asking customers not to practice “tire-kicking” unless they really intend to buy a product.
“I don’t think we will ever really get back to normal,” says Paszkowski. “But maybe that’s a good thing. People will learn new ways to enjoy their own food.”