Working from a makeshift office in his Chicago home, Prash Akkapeddi ’92 is grappling with the same personal issues that many are at this time: keeping his family safe, secure, and entertained while sheltering in place; figuring out ways to connect with co-workers and friends while maintaining appropriate distance; and ensuring that he’s mentally prepared to live and work this way for an undetermined amount of time. Unlike many of us, however, Akkapeddi is also tackling these same issues on a global scale.
As General Counsel for the U.S. at Kraft Heinz, Akkapeddi has been running point on the company’s response to coronavirus from the time news of COVID-19’s emergence in China became public.
“We have operations all over the world, so as it became clear that this was going to spread, we started to prepare on a global level,” he explained.
Kraft Heinz is of course best known for its food products. Food needs are second only to health care in times of crisis, and oftentimes the two go hand-in-hand. Akkapeddi confirmed that it is indeed top-of-mind now, whether it’s shelf-stable products like soups, sauces and mac ‘n cheese or the baby food that the company makes in Italy. The company has also stepped up the social responsibility measures it already had in place — working with organizations like Feeding America, Rise Against Hunger, and Babytree (China), among others — to ensure food donation and distribution to the people who need it most.
“We can be more impactful by donating our products or money to established organizations that can approach distribution in a targeted way so we get food and supplies to people who need it,” Akkapeddi said.
The company has already committed $12 million to the cause and continues to find other ways to help. For example, last week, it was announced that the Kraft Heinz factory in Newberry, S.C., is donating items from their own factory, including “n95 masks, surgical gowns, lab coats, face shields, fabric hood protective equipment and PDI Sani-Cloth containers, to Lexington Medical Center, Newberry County Memorial Hospital, and Self-Regional Healthcare Hospital,” according to a local ABC News affiliate.
From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kraft Heinz took added steps to make sure that their production was running at 100% and that the factories could stay open in a safe manner without exposing their employees to unnecessary health risks.
“Food factories are some of the cleanest environments you could be in even in normal times. We’re regulated and we meet or exceed safety and hygiene standards. What we’ve done since coronavirus is just enhance those procedures,” Akkapeddi explained. “We always have steps in place in terms of testing for and killing pathogens, bacteria, etc. — that’s normal-course stuff. Coronavirus is not surviving that.”
In addition to enhancing hygiene and sanitation practices, Kraft Heinz has reconfigured the workspace to maintain social distancing.
“There’s no need for everyone to be very close to each other. They’re big environments so we can spread people out a little bit. This is all to protect our workers. And, of course, they are true heroes in all of this, coming to work every day to make sure there is food available for all of us,” Akkapeddi explained.
It’s important for food factories like Kraft Heinz to stay in operation and running at peak performance, particularly when panicky individuals are exhibiting hoarding behavior, preventing food and supplies from getting to everyone who needs them, and creating shortages that put an increased demand on the suppliers.
“There has been a fair bit of hoarding behavior, and it kind of creates this vicious cycle,” he said. “People worry, ‘Is there going to be enough food?’ The answer is yes, there is enough food. … We’re making sure the factories stay open, are running in a safe manner, and making sure that we’re taking care of our employees so that they can continue putting the supply out there.”
Akkapeddi also pointed out that in addition to following the government and health organization recommendations — and curbing hoarding behavior — people who are looking to get involved during this time, can volunteer to work with local foodbanks.
“What Kraft Heinz can do is make sure that our products are making it into the supply chain broadly — groceries and similar networks — but also into these broader food banks and hunger relief organizations,” he said. “Then they have their apparatus to be able to disseminate to local communities. They’re all over the country and they’re looking for help. The key part is to do it safely.”
One heartening aspect to come out of this crisis, he said, has been the inter-industry collaboration. People are putting aside the usual competitive spirit to work together to share best practices toward a greater good. Akkapeddi pointed out that this type of collaboration and flexibility will be extremely beneficial in the long term.
“In some ways, facing a crisis improves you and a company. You realize that there are things that work better because you’ve put them in place to deal with, for example, coronavirus. But you realize that this is really a good way to be doing things going forward across the board. If you’re able to adapt, you can come out stronger in something like this,” he said.
Whether collaborating with companies or communities, professionally or personally, Akkapeddi emphasized the significance of teamwork. Individual behaviors like hoarding or ignoring shelter-in-place recommendations are doing more damage than good.
“I think the thing that this is teaching us — or that it should teach us — is that no one is going to be able to beat this thing alone,” he said. “This is a community group effort. So if you’re in this to look out for yourself, it’s just not going to work. Taking care of each other is what’s going to get us through this.”
He directly credits that community-first mentality to lessons learned during his time at GFA, and he said the school’s values remain the same as when he was a student. In fact, a few nights ago, members of his GFA class gathered on Zoom for a virtual happy hour, bringing together friends from around the country.
He said, “Even though we’re isolated in our home, we’re all in this together. This concept from my GFA days permeates everything. … It all comes together under that umbrella of taking care of each other.”