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Omaha Magazine

Truckers Carry the Weight of Supplies: Addressing Food Insecurity, PPE, and More

Sep 28, 2020 01:13PM ● By Joel Stevens
aqua blue semi truck with trailer

Photography by Geoff Johnson

It was just potatoes.

That was how Kevin Berry saw it; but in early May, as the COVID-19 pandemic put a stranglehold on the supply chain, the semitrailer of spuds Berry trucked all over north central Washington was more than that.

To those rural communities cut off from grocery staples and food banks struggling to serve the food insecure in the region, a bag of potatoes was a sliver of normal in an oh-so-abnormal time.

Berry, a long-haul driver for Omaha-based Werner Enterprises, took it upon himself to deliver 41,000 pounds of potatoes donated by growers unable to reach market due to shutdowns. He did it with the full blessing and support of Werner. 

“One of our core values is community,” Werner Vice President of Operations Angelo Gibson said. “We want to make sure we’re playing a role in communities and being the best corporate partner we can be. This immediately resonated with me.” 

Berry couldn’t guess how many people showed up at his stops, but all of them seemed way too appreciative for a bag of potatoes.

“I always tell people I was such a bad kid in high school I’m just trying to pay my way into heaven,” Berry said. “The truth of the matter is, I know how hard the life can be up here if you don’t have help.”

Berry is one example of how truckers and the carriers have worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 global health crisis to keep grocery shelves stocked—often at their own cost and the bottom line of an industry in flux. 

More than 70% of U.S. freight is transported by semitrailer. Almost all of it has been impacted by the virus. While trucking shipments to grocery and big box stores soared and consumers raced to stock up, other freight languished as nonessential retailers shut their doors. Those spikes and dips triggered market disruptions. Trucks transporting packed shipments of perishables, cleaning products, and toilet paper suddenly had trouble finding cargo for return trips, leaving carriers to run more trucks empty.

Market volatility also put truckers on the road more, often further from home, delivering products they and their families likely couldn’t obtain themselves—all the while navigating a highway of unknowns during a viral outbreak. 

Josh Quinby, a driver for JJT Transportation and Logistics in Omaha, spent most of the pandemic delivering frozen food and paper products throughout the Midwest. The uncertainty has been the hardest part.

“Our families didn’t know what was going on and we were out here doing everything we could to keep everyone supplied with food and toilet paper and everything like that,” said Quinby, 43, who lives in southern Missouri with his wife and four children. “There was enough uncertainty to go around.”

The carriers did what they could for drivers.

By late March, Werner had a COVID-19 task force set up with real-time updates from the CDC and a plan to distribute personal protection equipment, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes to the company’s nearly 8,000 drivers. 

JJT, which has a fleet of 60 trucks, took similar steps for its drivers. The company also secured a truckload of essential products for employees’ families.

Becki Cloyed, co-owner of JJT, called the last six months the most challenging stretch she’s seen in the industry. The company circled the wagons—or trucks, as it were—and rallied their drivers to the mission at hand: keeping store shelves stocked.

“If they had been firefighters, they’d have had to go out there and fight a fire,” she said. “If they signed up to be a police officer, they’d have to go do their job. This is OUR job. We haul the freight. That’s what we do. That’s our role.”

As a grocery supplier in the Midwest and southeast, JJT’s lane stayed steady during the pandemic. Werner, a Fortune 500 company, has dozens of contracts with national grocery chains. The company was honored by the state of Nebraska in April for securing scarce PPE for the state’s public health agencies and hospitals.

But the strain of balancing the unprecedented fluctuations of the supply chain was felt throughout the industry. Drivers often bore the brunt of that stress.

“It was felt, absolutely,” Gibson said of those early weeks of the pandemic, when confusion was common and guidelines were changing minute-by-minute, state-to-state. Morale, however, has remained strong and communication has been key.

As markets began to stabilize and social distancing became the norm, the truckers’ road improved.

“It was bad at times and sure there were changes, and none of us like change, but I don’t think it was too bad,” said Berry, who has driven for Werner for nearly two decades. “We had a job to do. We got through it.”

Berry knows how tenuous the links in the supply chain can be. He makes his home in tiny Republic, Washington, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Getting to his house requires a ferry ride. The closest Walmart is 90 minutes away.

This wasn’t the first time Berry put his big heart and big rig to use to help his community. In 2015, with wildfires devastating his state, he spent a month hauling relief supplies from Spokane to the impacted areas. So when Berry presented his idea to Gibson, the vice president of Werner’s operations wasn’t exactly surprised.

“It says a lot about who Kevin is,” Gibson said. “And a lot about who our professional drivers are. This was Kevin’s time off. It wasn’t just a one-day trip. He didn’t care. This was something he wanted to do and knew it was the right thing. I am absolutely proud of him for stepping up and wanting to do this. It speaks to who he is and who Werner is.”

Less than 24 hours after broaching the idea to Werner, Berry was at the Rearden, Washington, farm of the Hutterian Brethren loading 20 tons of loose potatoes into his trailer.

Working with local volunteers, Berry distributed his goods to churches, shelters, food pantries, and tribal relief agencies in a dozen communities. A stop in Oroville, Washington, created a rare traffic jam in the town of 1,600.

Berry said he’s not a hero. He’s a trucker; and doing what he can to help isn’t heroic, it’s human.

“It’s compassion,” he said. “I’d like to think if more people had it we’d be in a better place now.”

After two long days of zig-zagging the Kettle Mountain Range, Berry returned home for the much-needed rest he postponed. The next day, he went to the local grocery to grab a few items for dinner. As he was pulling his items from his basket, the shop owner couldn’t help but comment.

“What the hell are you buying potatoes for?” 

A rather sheepish Berry smiled and shook his head.

“I forgot to keep any for myself.”

This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.