Ag commissioner: 'Minnesotans should be confident in our food system'

Gov. Walz waives some trucking rules to get food on shelves sooner

Only a few produce items in potato and onion section.
The potato and onion section is empty at Knowlan’s Fresh Foods in South St. Paul on Monday. As Minnesotan’s prepare to quarantine themselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores are struggling to keep up with demand.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News file

The bare shelves at grocery stores may have some worried: Is there enough food? Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen says the answer is yes.

“The first thing we want Minnesotans to know is that we have a very safe food supply,” he said. “We're working to keep it affordable and also accessible.”

Petersen said food is ready and waiting in the supply chain, it’s just that the coronavirus outbreak has shifted consumer habits. People are buying at different times and they’re buying more — grocers report selling two to three times more than they would the day before Thanksgiving, he said — so deliveries aren’t keeping pace.

Petersen said an executive order signed by Gov. Tim Walz Tuesday should help companies catch up. It waives some restrictions on commercial drivers, including how much they can haul and how long they can be on the clock. The order, which expires after 30 days, follows similar moves by the federal government and neighboring states.

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The governor has also classified food distribution professionals as emergency workers, giving them the same access to child care through school districts that health care workers and first responders now have.

Petersen said consumers can help by following recommendations from the Minnesota Grocers Association: “Take what you need, be considerate, leave that first hour of shopping for the elderly, health care workers and people who are immunocompromised,” he said.

Petersen also asked people to consider supporting farmers by buying directly from them via Minnesota Grown or at farmers markets that are offering pickup options.

“Some of our farmers that sell directly to schools, for example, some of those things have been cut back,” he said. “A lot of farmers are impacted with restaurants scaling back and having to do takeout.”

Looking farther out, Petersen said the outbreak could impact farmers’ ability to hire seasonal workers from other countries to get through planting season. He said farms have relied on these workers for decades, especially in recent years when unemployment has been at historic lows. A new economic reality will likely mean more Minnesotans looking for jobs. And Petersen said he’ll work with the federal government to get procedures in place for seasonal work visas.

“There will be some pain, no doubt, in farm country,” Petersen said. “And we're working to mitigate that.”

Petersen spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann. Click play on the audio player above to hear the conversation.