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America’s Sugar Industry Gives Back During COVID-19 Crisis

Denise Hymel at the Fast Food Farm

In this podcast from Groundwork, Denise Hymel of the Hymel sugarcane farming family of St. James Parish in Louisiana is asked about her “Fast Food Farm” and what she did to help her community after the COVID-19 crisis affected her plans for her fast food farm’s production.

During the COVID-19 crisis, it has been more important than ever that we come together to support one another. America’s sugar farmers and workers are doing their part, keeping sugar moving from farm to table while also helping sustain rural communities and support employees during this tough time.

On this episode of Groundwork, Farm Policy Facts talked to two guests from the sugar industry about how they’ve adapted their work to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It hasn’t always been easy, but each guest came with a unique story to tell about the thoughtful ways they have continued to give back to others as community leaders, employers, and stewards of the land.

Denny Hymel has been involved with sugarcane farming in Louisiana for decades but was concerned that local children were losing touch with agriculture. Some of them didn’t even know that the sugar on their table came from a plant grown right there in Louisiana.

So, nearly 20 years ago Denny founded the Fast Food Farm, a nonprofit teaching farm, which uses creatively shaped farm plots in the middle of her family’s sugarcane fields to teach children where their food comes from.

Importantly, Denny and her Fast Food Farm have helped fill a pressing educational need during the pandemic.

The farm had one of its biggest events of the year planned in April just as COVID-19 was requiring social distancing and schools were closing.

So, Denny pivoted to a drive-through operation to make sure she could still reach children under the new circumstances. They held drive-through visits once a week for five weeks where they passed out hands-on “ag-tivities” to each car.

“It was such a tremendous appreciation from those parents when they came through thanking us for doing this,” she said.

It’s all part of the mission of sustainability at the Fast Food Farm, she said, which includes growing and donating vegetables and eggs to those in need.

“Naturally teaching them how to grow their own food is one way of great sustainability,” she said. “We teach about recycling. We teach about composting. We teach about the environment and how they need to take care of our earth.”

Farther north, in sugarbeet country, Lisa Borgen is the Vice President of Administration at the American Crystal Sugar Company headquartered in Minnesota. American Crystal is a cooperative owned by nearly 2,800 sugarbeet growers in the Red River Valley in Minnesota and North Dakota.

American Crystal produces and sells about 3 billion pounds of sugar a year, an essential ingredient in many products and a critical food item.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, American Crystal didn’t skip a beat, quickly rolling out new safety measures to protect their workers and keep products flowing to consumers.

Even before stay-at-home orders were implemented, American Crystal started posting guidance around its facilities and sharing information with their employees. They moved quickly to procure thermometers and hire additional occupational nurses. They offered an empty sugarbeet storage area as a location for drive-through testing within the community. And they encouraged best practices both at work and at home to stop the spread of the virus.

Ensuring that their employees stayed well – and felt safe – during this crisis was a priority.

“We gave every employee a bank of 40 hours of what we call COVID sick time… in the event that they had symptoms of fever, had been exposed to someone,” Lisa said. “They were all given 40 hours of additional paid sick time that they could stay home because really, we want people to stay home when they’re not feeling well.”

But the company’s hard work didn’t stop at the factory. American Crystal plays an important role in the Red River Valley and they knew they had an opportunity to support local communities during this time of crisis.

“We also supported all of our communities’ restaurants, the locally owned chain restaurants. We purchased gift cards from all of those different restaurants and gave $75 of restaurant gift cards to 1,500 employees. That was kind of a way to thank our employees for taking it seriously with all the restrictions that we were imposing on them and also thanking our communities and supporting those restaurants who were closed, that they were also still doing takeout so we were hoping to support them,” Lisa said.

Sugar is just one important part of the critical food supply chain that has kept America fed over the past several months. But more importantly than that, our sugar farmers and workers have gone above and beyond to support each other and give back to our rural communities.

We are thankful for all of agriculture’s hard work and are continually inspired by the resilience of rural America and its love of community.

Hear more of their stories on this episode of Groundwork. Find it where you download your favorite podcasts.

Want to help the Fast Food Farm? Call (985) 817-0808 or visit the Fast Food Farm’s Facebook page.

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