empty store shelves; U.S. food shortage

Photo credit: Unsplash/John Cameron

It’s been about two weeks since we first started seeing empty shelves in supermarkets around the country due to “panic buying” – or people adding everything in sight to their shopping carts – as the coronavirus pandemic worsens. But while it’s understandable that shelter-in-place orders in many states are leading consumers to want to stock their refrigerators and pantries, panic buying is largely unnecessary.

While a natural response might be, “I’m going to buy a lot more now while I can because it might not be there in the future,” the truth is that the U.S. is at no risk of a food shortage. The empty shelves you’re seeing are simply due to increased demand and the distribution model through which our food supply operates.

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empty store shelves; U.S. food shortage

Photo credit: Unsplash/Claudio Schwarz

Debunking the Food Shortage Myth

“There’s not a huge fear of there being a shortage of food, because we make most of it here [in the United States],” says Alex Scott, assistant professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University in East Lansing. (Fear of a shortage of antibiotics, which are primarily exported from China and India, is a different story.)

Fresh foods – such as fruits and vegetables – are still readily being grown around the country and don’t require an in-depth production process. After being picked, run through quality control and packaged, these items are ready to be consumed.

“When you think of an automotive supply chain, there are thousands of parts, and production shuts down if you run out of one,” explains Scott. “Food is not like that; it’s very simple.”

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Even processed foods, such as cereals or canned goods, are not at risk of being in short supply, because most of these are produced through highly automated machine processes. This means that even if there are workforce shortages due to people being quarantined, the food supply chain won’t really be interrupted, adds Scott. (So no, you really don’t need to add those dozen cans of beans to your cart – unless you’re in the mood to make an enormous batch of chili.)

Photo credit: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Shifting Demand

In addition to panic buying, another reason you’re seeing empty supermarket shelves is due to a shift in demand for grocery stores, says Scott. With restaurants ordered to close, people who were previously eating out are being forced to eat in, and they are getting their food from the supermarket.

Overall, more people are buying more food, which leads to the appearance of less food on shelves – but again, that’s not actually the case. Scott says that the initial panic surge is already beginning to wear off and that shelves seem to be better stocked. In an interview with Cincinnati’s The Enquirer last week, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen expressed that “as long as customers just buy what they need and don’t hoard, there will be no problems at all – there’s plenty of food in the supply chain.”

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Big stores such as Kroger receive deliveries almost daily, and at worse, every few days in more rural areas, says Scott. If you find a supermarket is out of many items in the evening, often you can try again in the morning and find shelves restocked. That said, the increased demand at grocery stores has strained truck capacity somewhat due to the limited number of pickup and delivery windows at distribution centers and reductions in a drivers’ access to certain areas as companies try to limit their employees’ exposure to the virus. However, the government has exempted hours of service rules for truckers carrying critical supplies (which includes food), meaning drivers can drive more – and effectively increase their delivery capacity, says Scott.

empty store shelves; U.S. food shortage

Photo credit: Unsplash/Mick Haupt

Supporting Local Stores

If you have access to smaller stores that carry food, such as a neighborhood corner store, you might find these shelves to be better stocked than large supermarkets. That is largely due to how the supply chain works and how big stores are beholden to distribution contracts.

“The reason some of the larger grocery stores feel sort of apocalyptic is because they have a singular supply chain, meaning they have contracts with [certain brands] and are having to fulfill so many cases,” explains Rebecca Goldfarb, owner of L&M Fine Foods in Chicago. For example, when a major store runs out of 20 cases of canned beans, they then have to restock that many and are stuck with specific brands they have to carry, including their own private labels. It takes a bit of time to get delivery on that order. “That’s why people have this sense of, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s nothing available’ – and that’s just not the case,” Goldfarb adds.

Having enough food supply is not the problem; the issue lies in the distribution model of big business. Smaller stores like L&M, however, are able to be much more nimble because they don’t have singular contracts with large brands. If they run out of flour, for example, Goldfarb says she can check in with her six or eight distributors to see who has flour that she believes to be high enough quality to stock. And because she’s not tied up in the larger corporate supply chain, she can usually get it in quickly.

That’s another reason you may find one store completely sold out of, say, a particular brand of eggs, while another is nearly fully stocked with the same brand. “It’s not like the chickens woke up and said, ‘Hey, it’s COVID-19, I’m not going to lay eggs,’” says Goldfarb. “Those egg farmers are still getting eggs; they’re being distributed to a wholesaler; and wholesalers are delivering them.” The food system just wasn’t built for everybody to want the exact same products at the same time.

While shopping at neighborhood markets such as L&M can be more expensive, since they’re ordering in much less volume than big stores, there’s a trade-off – especially during times of false scarcity. “You have to think about, do you want it cheaper, or do you want it all the time?” says Goldfarb. “That’s the big difference.”

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