Pandemic tests resilience of islands’ food supply chains

In the latest in our Cayman 2.0 series we look at the impact of the pandemic on Cayman’s supply chains and examine the options for the island to enhance food security.

With few COVID-19 cases detected locally in July, Cayman Islands residents have enjoyed a notably quieter summer than much of the world.

Gone are the spring days of panic-buying, purchasing restrictions and Sunday lockdowns.

In many ways, Cayman has returned to a sense of ‘normal’. Summer camps, drinks with friends, and outings to the beach create a semblance of life as it was.

A shopper searches the produce section at Foster’s Camana Bay on Wednesday. While store shelves have remained stocked throughout the crisis, customers have encountered variability in
available brands and packaging. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

These days, normal isn’t quite normal, however, notes Woody Foster, managing director of Foster’s supermarkets. Beyond Cayman’s borders, COVID-19 cases are growing, and confirmed infections worldwide have surpassed 15 million to date.

Meanwhile, the crisis continues to reveal vulnerabilities in supply chains and the interconnected nature of global markets – often in unexpected ways.

When large numbers of farm workers become sick in California, for example, Foster says, Caymanians may notice the effect in reduced availability of strawberries or other fresh produce. In other instances, shoppers may notice the absence of a favourite brand or an increase in price. These changes all hint at the larger crisis unfolding around the globe.

Woody Foster of Foster’s supermarket chain

“A lot with the supply chain is completely out of our control,” Foster said. “It’s not until it gets here that we can do anything about it.”

While the grocery chain has managed to keep stores stocked throughout the pandemic, brands and packaging have often varied from what customers are accustomed to purchasing. When US toilet paper supplies ran short, for example, Foster’s procured products from Belize. When US slaughterhouses faced coronavirus outbreaks, US suppliers connected the chain with frozen chicken suppliers from Brazil.

The crisis has demanded an unprecedented level of flexibility and adaptability to maintain access to essential products, like food and medicine – and as Foster explains, suppliers have no roadmap to navigate what comes next.

Caribbean trade

The supply stressors felt in Cayman reflect a general trend across the Caribbean, where communities rely largely on US exports, explained Regis Chapman, head of the United Nations World Food Programme in the Caribbean.

About 80% of food in the Caribbean comes from imports, according to World Food Programme data. The US easily claims the top supply spot, accounting for 47.25% of the region’s imports.

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For Foster’s, more than 90% of its food supplies are estimated to come from the US.

The US is a natural partner for places like Cayman, offering proximity of location, a common language and ease of connectivity through ports in Florida.

While the COVID-19 crisis has at times stressed the US supply market, establishing alternative trade routes is not a simple task.

“We know a thing or two about logistics,” Chapman said, explaining the World Food Programme’s work establishing emergency supply chains in places like the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian. “So, a number of governments actually called us in the very early days, worried about exactly that – ‘What happens if we get cut off from the US?’”

Regis Chapman of the World Food Programme

He suggested leveraging the expertise of private-sector partners to strengthen existing supply systems.

In Cayman, for example, Foster’s assisted government in sourcing personal protective equipment from China for local hospitals. Government provided the funds for the cash transaction and Foster’s managed the logistics.   

“All of a sudden, you’re no longer working for yourself,” Foster said. “You’re working for Team Cayman to keep us all going.”

Creating new partnerships

To provide long-term solutions to increase Caribbean food security, the United Nations has encouraged government agencies to come together on addressing common goals.

“It is the responsibility of governments to prevent the health crisis from becoming a food crisis,” a recent UN report stated.

“To this end, multilateral cooperation mechanisms must be activated at the international level, along with cooperation between governments, businesses and their workers, and civil society organizations.”

In Cayman, multi-agency work has been facilitated in large part by Hazard Management Cayman Islands, along with the National Emergency Operations Centre, to identify alternative supply-chain routes and plan protocol for a variety of disaster scenarios.

The Governor’s Office has also stepped up to coordinate repatriation flights for unemployed foreign workers and to establish a United Kingdom airbridge for transport and trade.

A deal to procure 200,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea earlier in the year demonstrated the territory’s potential to negotiate complex trade deals in a crisis.

Establishing long-term trade routes, however, is a different undertaking.

For governments interested in supply chain diversification, Chapman points out that maintaining perishable goods requires extensive planning and infrastructure.

“Managing food warehouses comes with quite a lot of work in terms of fumigation and rotation of stocks,” Chapman said. “It’s a complicated business.”

In Cayman, Foster says re-adjusting trade routes around Central or South America would be “catastrophic” and would complicate the islands’ reliance on the United States for enforcing food safety protocol.

“Based on what we already came out of, which was already catastrophic and we survived,” Foster said, “I don’t see the need to change.”

Sherice Arman

On the other hand, greater connectivity between Caribbean neighbours could help diversify and strengthen supply sources, said Sherice Arman, president of the Cayman Islands chapter of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association.

She points out that many Caribbean countries produce meat and other agricultural products that could be re-purposed from deflated tourist markets to supply local consumers.

Currently, only Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana enter the top 10 as import sources within the region, accounting for 5.56% and 1.68% of the market, respectively, according to the World Food Programme.

“As the pandemic continues, we hear stories of farmers in Jamaica and Barbados having to dump large quantities of meat and produce destined for the hotels and tourism industry in their respective countries, at the same time the supermarkets in the Cayman Islands [are looking] for alternate sources of supplies to the US, given shortages,” Arman said.

“If we had existing trade lines, we may have been able to benefit from the excesses in the region, whilst saving the dumping of produce.”

“The geographical position of the Cayman Islands and its proximity to Central America also opens up the entire of Central and South America as potential sources of supply to us,” she added.

Chapman said the CARICOM secretariat has established a food-security task force, working to evaluate the region’s agricultural production across islands and identifying potential for trade among member countries.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to get to a point where you have one of these countries now transitioning to providing 100% of their own needs. Clearly, that won’t happen in the immediate [future] and, most likely, not in the long term,” Chapman said. “However, there’s a lot of room for innovative approaches, whether it’s promoting more household gardens, whether it’s looking at urban farming solutions, whether it’s introducing climate-smart agriculture or aquaculture.”

Foster’s employees prepare to transport foods from the warehouse to the shelves at the Camana Bay
location on Wednesday. Grocery store staff have remained on the frontlines through the COVID-19
pandemic as ‘essential workers’.

At the base of everything, Foster said, is the human element that keeps supply chains running.

The crisis has elevated grocery store cashiers, distribution workers and sanitation staff to ‘essential’ status, both in government mandates and in the minds of community members.

“All of a sudden, they are toe-to-toe with nurses, because they are helping take care of the country,” Foster said. “It gave them a sense of pride.”

While a large portion of the community sheltered at home, these workers remained on the front lines, taking on double shifts and risking illness to keep shelves stocked.

The experience has underscored the importance of people in keeping the economy afloat, Foster said.

“Going through this process, he said, “has cemented that and opened up eyes as to what people have to go through to make the world turn.”



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1 COMMENT

  1. It is commendable to see the food chain keep on running in this pandemic.
    Congrats to Mr Foster. We did not see a shortage whatsoever. It is not a big deal, if you do not get this brand of butter, but you had the other brand. In the end, butter is butter.
    The only thing I will like to add is that entrepreneurs like Mr Foster can plan of putting some sort of production/plan to produce some products on island. It cannot be done in all products, but whatever is possible and feasible.
    This will not only make Cayman self reliant but also generate some employment as well. It is like killing 2 birds with one stone.
    Disaster normally never gives you an advance notice, and not being prepared for any eventuality is a mistake.
    People of the stature like Foster and others like him, can do this.
    It is just putting your thoughts into it.
    Once again Kudos to all who worked to keep things going including the staff and management.
    Till next time.