‘People need food, so I come to work’: Tennessee grocery workers keeping shelves stocked

Sandy Mazza, Nashville Tennessean Published 10:04 a.m. CT March 24, 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. Reported illnesses range from very mild to severe, including death. Agencies anticipate widespread transmission will occur in the U.S. in coming months and recommend social distancing among other measures to slow the spread. Call your doctor and stay home if you are sick. Get more information at CDC.gov/coronavirus or contact the Tennessee Department of Health coronavirus information line at 877-857-2945 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT daily.

Turnip Truck produce manager John Nolan has been restocking fruits and vegetables faster than ever.

He’s had to substitute some organic items, including potatoes, for conventional produce, and garlic is temporarily sold out at the natural foods grocery chain.

But the shelves remain largely filled with a wide variety of fresh food.

“I try not to think too much about (COVID-19) exposure,” Nolan said. “I don’t romanticize it like I’m a first responder or anything. But I need to be here. People need food, so I come to work and make sure our shelves are stocked.”

Produce manager John Nolan restocks limes at The Turnip Truck Monday, March 23, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: Courtney Pedroza / The Tennessean )

The March 3 tornado left the East Nashville Turnip Truck store without power and devastated much of nearby Main Street. But, with the help of a generator, employees kept it open until electricity was restored.

Now it’s on the front lines of a new crisis.

Workers show up for shifts wearing latex gloves and masks or bandanas over their mouths and noses to help reduce the risk of exposure to the deadly respiratory disease.

The Metro Public Health Department does not recommend that the general public wear face masks unless they are sick or working with sick patients.

Vanderbilt University infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner said he wouldn’t discourage essential-services workers from wearing them, but they haven’t been proven to help reduce risk.

“If they were really thought to be a preventive mechanism then there would be an annual recommendation during each influenza season,” said Schaffner, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “There’s a lot of innovative activity around respiratory protection now. It’s just that we don’t have definitive answers. Even if we did, the priority ought to be focused on healthcare providers.”

New sanitizing stations arrived Monday for customers and employees, who are washing their hands and applying sanitizer routinely throughout the day as customers flood the aisles.

“I feel my employees are true heroes right now because they’re running into everybody,” Turnip Truck owner John Dyke said. “They’re providing a great service to the community.”

He’s preparing to open the third Nashville location at the end of this week, at 5001 Charlotte Ave.

“We have a team meeting every day and I greet every employee every day,” Dyke said. “Going from the tornado into this, many people haven’t been able to process their feelings.”

Antibacterial soap is so hard to get that the stores are making their own using rubbing alcohol, aloe vera and essential oils.

Food sellers in Tennessee and across the nation are rapidly adjusting their supply networks to keep shelves stocked, and instructing employees to keep their distance from others and clean regularly.

Kroger, Publix, Turnip Truck, Trader Joe’s and Aldi are hiring hundreds of new workers in the state as unemployment skyrockets amid widespread forced business closures.

Paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, chicken, baby items and boxed meals are so highly sought that they’re difficult to keep on the shelves, said Kroger spokeswoman Melissa Eads.

“There’s demand on just about anything,” Eads said. “We’re working 24-7 with distribution centers and suppliers to help replenish items as quickly as possible. Trucks are arriving daily and all our manufacturing partners have added shifts.”

Food is readily available, but the supply chains haven’t been able to meet the unprecedented customer demand fast enough.

“There’s just such pressure on the system right now and as soon as trucks come in, it’s bought up,” Eads said. “It’s going to take awhile to get things back to normal. We expect our conditions and quantities to continue to improve.”

Kroger’s grocery pickup service is so busy that orders are delayed and sometimes can’t be fully filled.

“We’re assembling the orders in the store and we’re having to navigate big crowds. A lot of times we don’t have items they want,” Eads said. “More people are choosing that option because they don’t want to go inside the store.”

All grocery stores are sanitizing public areas throughout the day to try to help reduce the rapid spread of coronavirus.

Publix has a “designated team of associates” assigned to sanitize baskets, cart handles and payment areas at the registers, said spokeswoman Nicole Krauss.

“Customers continue to buy in increased demands, and we’re asking customers to shop as they normally would,” Krauss said. “Also, we’re asking customers not to arrive early, waiting in line for stores to open. Since deliveries are made throughout the day, arriving first thing doesn’t guarantee product availability.”

Many grocery stores and delivery services have increased wages as they embark on hiring sprees.

Amazon will hire 100,000 new workers nationwide, including 1,200 in Tennessee, and Walmart is hiring 150,000 additional employees across the country.

“We believe our role serving customers and the community during this time is a critical one,” Amazon officials said, in a statement. “We’ve seen an increase in people shopping online for groceries and are working around the clock to continue to deliver grocery orders to customers as quickly as possible.”

Turnip Truck has received hundreds of job applications in recent days, said Chief Operating Officer Kim Totzke.

The stores have also picked up some new products from out-of-work restaurant suppliers to fill in gaps. But some items, like paper goods, chicken and garlic, are still moving off shelves faster than they can be restocked.

“It’s really easy to feel broken during this, so to feel like we can actually do something positive feels really good,” Tozke said. “It feels awesome to be able to provide some more jobs right now.”