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Growing Food Safely, Now and Always

Growing healthy, delicious food while keeping our communities and employees safe is always our top priority. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become even more important.

At Square Roots, we have a moral obligation to use the resources we have—skilled farmers and our farm-tech platform—to keep growing food, and to find ways to get that food to as many people as possible. But indoor farming in the middle of densely populated cities is subject to unique challenges at a time when “social distancing” and working from home are necessary to protect our communities.

Pre-COVID-19, our usual operations already put food-safety and people-safety first:

  • Controlled environment means no pesticides, ever.
  • Strict biosecurity protocols control who and what enters the farms.
  • PPE (personal protective equipment) for safe plants and people. We hand harvest produce, but always wear gloves, and we always wear hairnets or hats when inside the farms.
  • Working with Gordon Food Service —one of the biggest food distributors in the country—means we meet their exacting standards for food safety.
  • Personal sanitation—washing hands thoroughly and cleaning electronic devices—before entering farms.
  • Regular external safety audits from the USDA and FDA ensure that we are GAP and FSMA compliant.
  • Complete traceability of produce in the form of a first-of-its-kind Transparency Timeline, where customers can see the entire lifecycle of their produce by scanning a QR code on our packaging.

As COVID-19 emerged in China, and knowing that viruses know no borders, we developed a Coronavirus Safety Framework several weeks ago, with various Operating Levels reflecting risk. Since then, we’ve been operating at “Level 1 Operations” on our farms in Brooklyn, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Level 1 Operations” saw us strictly following all of the above food-safety and people-safety measures, plus:

  • Asking all employees to stay home if they felt in any way sick.
  • Heightened sanitation protocol: Updated cleaning checklists to include high-touch areas.
  • Retraining all employees on sanitation and hygiene practices.

This week, we moved both our New York and Michigan Farm Campuses to “Level 2 Operations” which meant all of the above practices were in place, plus:

  • Running the farms with a much smaller team.
  • Any farmers or support staff not absolutely required for this level have been asked to stay at home on full pay.
  • Fewer people in the farms means more physical space per person, which has allowed us to re-engineer our farming processes to ensure social distancing (i.e. no one does any work within six feet of another person).
  • This ensures the farm is a safe place to work, and we can grow food for people who need it, even if the process is now less efficient and our capacity will be somewhat reduced.
  • Rapid development of new production schedules for smaller teams.
  • In Michigan, we worked quickly with the team at Gordon Food Service to confirm a new harvest schedule. For now, Square Roots produce will still be distributed to local restaurants who are serving customers through takeout and delivery options and directly to consumers through local Gordon Food Service retail stores.
  • In New York, all of our produce is currently being packed in bulk bags—a much faster process than our usual practice of packing into individual packages for retail—and we’re donating everything we harvest this week to ReThink Food NYC to prepare meals for New Yorkers in need.

Although our teams were well prepared, it’s still astonishing to witness how quickly—and calmly—we’ve reconfigured operations in two locations. Now, as we adjust to constant change being our “new normal,” we’re having conversations with retailers in NYC about new ways of working together in the coming days and weeks. We’re considering supplying produce in bulk bags or potentially different products that are optimized for nutrient density. The situation is fluid, and we’re ready to help our partners and customers in any way we can, while keeping the safety of our food and people as top priorities.

Well-run indoor farms bring heightened safety to food production and distribution, and we’ve now made the process even safer. We plan to continue operating our farms through this pandemic, bringing as much food to as many people as possible, while maintaining safety.