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As worries mount over US food supply chain, now’s the time to prepare for possible shortages

Rob McNealy has been on top of the food supply issue and contributed to this report.

In our collective imagination, it seems that re-opening the economy after a pandemic might be as simple as operating a light switch. With a flick of the finger, the economy will turn back on and be as it was. In reality, however, nothing will be as it was. As this pandemic has dutifully proven, that way was fundamentally broken. The fragility of the economy has been exposed, upending many industries.

Our food chain—something we surely took for granted before all this—will now be an enduring and highly visible example of how quickly our faith in the economy shattered.

Cracks in the supply chain exposed

The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough food in the nation to feed us all. The problem is figuring out how to get that food where it needs to go. COVID-19 has done much more than force us to accept a work-at-home life or shoot unemployment numbers through the roof. Now it has disrupted an otherwise unbreakable chain of logistics that delivers food from factories and farms to restaurants and grocery stores.

“Normally, about half of all U.S. food and agricultural products end up in direct to consumer markets including supermarkets, grocery and retail stores,” notes Bruce Fenton
in a recent Medium article. “The other half [of all US food] is purchased and distributed by the wholesale commercial and food service sector. This includes restaurants, schools, institutions, and the hospitality industry (including hotels, resorts, cruise ships, all primarily driven by tourism).”

It’s the commercial supply chain that lockdowns have most severely hurt, as the demand for many popular restaurant food staples has dried up overnight. Meanwhile, as Fenton points out, the consumer food market is overloaded with unexpected demand, which is what results in the bare shelves that are causing some shoppers to panic and hoard. Basically, the demand is out of whack. Usually, restaurants need the massive quantities of food. Now, it’s families.

Because commercial demand has decreased so significantly, farmers have been forced to toss their crops and dump milk. First of all, it’s worth noting that this food could be going to food banks instead of the compost pile. But perhaps even more importantly, the food dumping highlights a supply chain issue that won’t right itself the moment states lift lock-down orders. Restaurants won’t magically snap back to full-scale service, so suppliers will have to find a way to survive until demand is adequate enough to begin producing again.

COVID-19 related closures at the factory level are starting to cascade like BBQ sauce over ribs. The JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, CO just closed after dozens of employees tested positive for COVID-19. A pork packing plant in South Dakota and an Iowa beef processing plant have also recently been closed after workers contracted COVID-19.

Consumers feel the impact

The hiccups in the commercial supply chain are concerning, but manageable–we can live without eating out. The true concern resides with the consumer supply chain, the food that we pick up in the grocery store. As factories trim back production due to either COVID-19 related closures or trailing demand, will we have enough food to keep the shelves stocked and our bellies full? Conversely, shortages of fresh produce could mark America’s final progression into the sort of country that relies solely on processed food for nutrition and survival.

Our ability to get food hinges on delivery to stores. Right now, though, truckers don’t want to deliver to places like NYC and other COVID-19 hotspots. Stores are forced to wait to stock their shelves, which quickly causes panic among consumers who are unable to stock up quickly enough to comfortably wait out the pandemic.

Stocking up for COVID-19 isn’t like stocking up for a hurricane. We could be in this for a long time. That means this kind of shortage is more like a sustained attack on our functional ability to stay fed and alive. There are no easy fixes, but there is good news.

There’s a window of opportunity right now to stock up before the supply chain partially (or totally) collapses and the only thing on the store shelves are Hot Pockets, Doritos and Zebra Cakes. Stores are still restocking right now, since most states that house meat packing plants and farms haven’t yet reached their apex of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic does peak in those rural states, new research indicates that it could hit them a lot harder than urban areas. Rural residents are older and more prone to complications like heart disease and obesity that dramatically increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

If–and when–a wave of deaths hit those farm states, our food supply chains could start to collapse and grocery store shelves around the country could be bare of many essential items.

How to prepare

There are a few things you can (and should) do to prepare for serious, sustained food shortages and to help prevent them from happening.

The first and most important action you can take is to keep your pandemic food supplies topped up. You know the old tip about never letting your car’s gas tank drop below half, in case you need to run out in a sudden emergency? Treat your food stores like that, and do not let them get too low before you refill.

Our COVID-19 preparedness page has links to shopping lists with specific food recommendations.

If your grocery store is running low on staples like rice and beans, check the local Hispanic or Asian markets, who cater to a smaller client base and generally are stocked much longer than big box grocery stores.

You should also check out stores that supply the restaurant business, like Restaurant Depot, which has just opened its membership to the general public for the first time.

There are also some things we can do to keep our local supply chains moving. Buying from restaurants that are still open and that offer take-out and curbside pickup or delivery is a great way to ensure that commercial foods are still in some demand, somewhere. This especially holds true for restaurants that source a lot of their ingredients locally. Buying from them will directly impact your community and trickle up to their local suppliers.

For many, stocking up just isn’t an option. Unemployment is on the rise, and many simply can’t  afford to buy more than a week’s worth of food at a time. Think about the most vulnerable among us, and donate to local food banks if you have the capacity to do so. Keep buying from local restaurants to keep people employed.

Like all things in life, this is only temporary, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for the variability in whatever temporary means.


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