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Rural grocers in coronavirus keep local communities fed

Independent grocery supplier adds podcasts to keep customers up to date

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A family-owned and operated grocer on the outskirts of a rural Pennsylvania community is modifying operations to make sure local residents homebound by government efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic can safely get the food they need.

Oregon Dairy, which encompasses a full-service market, family-style restaurant and farm in Lititz, the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country, has stepped up safety protocols for its workforce and customers, extended its hours of operations and added curbside pickup.

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Oregon Dairy - (MDI/Carry-on Media) 

The business is one of the hundreds of independent grocers supplied by Merchants Distributors, otherwise known as MDI, which is working hard to make sure its customers have the information they need to cope with the pandemic.

One way MDI is doing so is by offering a series of podcasts that utilize a pool of experts including American infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Micheal Osterhold, executive vice president of the National Grocers Association Greg Ferrara, and business educator and coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith.

"During the uncertainty of COVID-19, we felt it was important to connect our people – internal employees as well as our independent grocers – directly with the experts they could trust to give them clear answers to pressing questions," Michele Azar, president of MDI, told FOX Business. "The overall goal was to increase confidence and literacy around critical subject areas as they arose."

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That information has been key to informing customers what to expect, Jon Hurst, manager of the market, told FOX Business.

"How to explain to people that aren't in this business why our shelves look the way they are sometimes or why this one product will not come in or has not come in for three weeks, that can get really frustrating," Hurst explained. "Having that knowledge and being able to explain to them, all these things that MDI communicates with us, it's really helpful. Being able to talk intelligently about it has been half of this battle."

Oregon Dairy (MDI/Carry-on Media) 

Customers have taken notice, thanking everyone from baggers to cashiers for their efforts, Hurst added.

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Oregon Dairy has ramped up its curbside pickup to 130 orders per week with slots being booked up 10 days out. Aside from having a separate crew for sanitation, the grocer also has an employee on staff who has dedicated her time to handcrafting masks.

For about three weeks, the employee has brought in about 100 masks per day, which Hurst says have been an immense help to not only staff but shoppers, who are required by the local government to wear face coverings in public.

Oregon Dairy (MDI/Carry-on Media) 

Additionally, the farm is donating the milk it processes to a local food bank, putting to use a product that dairy farmers across the nation are being forced to pour down the drain after demand from bars and restaurants fizzled during the coronavirus shutdown.

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Such independent grocers play a much bigger role in smaller communities than many people realize, Kimberly George, vice president of communications for MDI owner Alex Lee Inc., told FOX Business.

"Stores are very much a resource not just for essential supplies, but [the community] is also relying on them for information and most of them in the smaller communities actually rely on them for work as well," she said.