Rising costs are hitting the food insecure the hardest, says Superior Grocers president Richard Wardwell.
The Los Angeles County Food Equity Roundtable benefits from the input of a wide variety of players in the food space – from local farmers to public-health professors. The counsel of retailers that operate in some of the County’s most vulnerable communities, such as La Monarca Bakery and Superior Grocers, has provided perspective from the business community.
Richard Wardwell, president of the Santa Fe Springs-based Superior, presented to the Roundtable about some of the challenges and opportunities facing retailers working to reduce food insecurity in our region. Here, he shares his take on the business of feeding the food insecure.
You tend to operate in some of the more economically challenged areas in the region? What are some of the challenges of serving a customer base that often struggles with putting food on the table?
One of the biggest challenges is to be able to offer the most affordable proteins and vegetables at all times. With costs going up so rapidly we are constantly moving between different proteins and trying to put good volume vegetables front and center for our customers to fill their baskets.
How have you seen the pandemic affect your business? What have been the biggest challenges?
We saw our business suffer under the added pressures of cost increases and the added logistics of maintaining safety protocols. We have had to hire companies to come in and sanitize all our stores and our warehouses and corporate offices. The amount of Covid-related illness impacted our workforce and exacerbated supply chain-shortages. We still have not recovered from these added labor challenges and the supply chain is still months away from recovery.
How has your company responded to help customers who are feeling such economic pressure these days?
In order to serve our customers better we implemented a value-visible program in our stores that provides our consumers with a stable price on staple commodity items so that they can continue to feed their families in these tough times. We take price increases very seriously at Superior and we meet weekly to review how we can help our customers and our employees with savings.
On the flip side, what can be done to help value retailers like Superior better serve those in your community struggling with food security?
I’d say that we need to continue to work with government officials to have them help us with the things that our impacting us the most. We need to [rein in] energy costs, medical costs and workers comp insurance costs – all of which are taking a significant percentage of the food dollar.
How do you balance the needs of your business with the needs of your customers? What is the strategy for balancing the bottom line and being a compassionate partner in low-income communities?
Our owner has given us clear guidance in this area. Make sure we are operating our stores with the utmost care – maintaining security, sanitation and good operating equipment. We continue to provide good wages and hire from the communities we serve. We have also increased our commitment to the communities we serve by establishing the Superior Foundation, which provides financial support to education and the arts.
Why have you devoted your time to help solve this riddle of food insecurity in our region?
We feed people. If we can continue to work on helping people in need and at the same time reduce our food waste and help the community, it would be a good thing for us all.
How do you think business can best help find long-term solutions to the problem? Is the answer in the private sector? Government? Or some intersection?
I think business needs to continue to sit down at the table and work with the government and communities to figure out and come up with some [new strategies], even if small at first, and move forward. We have to try something innovative in addition to what so many others are doing today. I commend everyone on this Roundtable. They truly care.