Grocery Store Panic is a Supply Chain Wake-Up Call

Walking into the supermarket to find the shelves empty throughout the store is harrowing. For many, it’s a moment of incredible helplessness and panic. This has been the scene lately around the U.S. and Canada: grocery store panic and the hoarding of foodstuffs.
by on Saturday, March 21, 2020

How Coronavirus Impacts Your Food Accessibility

Walking into the supermarket to find the shelves empty throughout the store is harrowing. For many, it’s a moment of incredible helplessness and panic.

This has been the scene in the last two supermarkets I visited in New York, as well as many others recounted by my colleagues and friends. Articles and photos from around the US and Canada repeat the same story: grocery store panic and the hoarding of foodstuffs.

coronavirus america producers market

Most of us rely on a miraculous system that brings fresh and processed products from all over the world to our fingertips. We work a job, get paid, then show up at the market (or online) to pick out our groceries and pay with a card. We rarely consider what would happen if it all disappeared overnight. We assume that there will always be a variety of products on the shelves.

While it seems likely that agricultural and food supplies will continue to be available to us in the US, despite recent panic, the experience of an empty supermarket ought to spark curiosity, if not fear, in even the most aloof among us.

“Humanity requires agriculture to live.”

We rely on a decentralized, interconnected web of outdated supply chain systems that require consistency in production and logistics. This system includes farming, harvesting, and too often long-distance shipping. Outputs and money exchange hands across farmers, aggregators, packers, processors, distributors, warehouses, wholesalers, and ultimately the retailers and food service providers that interact directly with customers.

Based on my conversations with growers, packers, and distributors from Latin America, California, and New York it appears that Covid-19 could likely disrupt supply chains in the short term if domestic and international migrant and nationalized harvest crews, packing facilities, truck drivers, and warehouse employees are restricted from working.

This will impact fresh produce supply chains more rapidly than non-perishable packaged goods, depending on inventory and warehouse levels.

It’s also worth considering that the United States, like many nations, are highly dependent on the importation of food, especially fresh products. If international supply chains are disrupted or the importation of fresh produce is suspended, it may cause near-term shortages.

This grocery store panic caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) has exposed just how delicate our supply chains are, and how terrifying a core disruption to our food or agricultural systems would be. This has already been a reality in parts of Venezuela in recent years, but few expected the grocery store scene across the US this past week.

What if supermarket shelves indeed remained empty for an extended period of time due to an inability to restock?

What if the imported food products we rely on were disrupted by supply shocks or strategic decisions made by foreign governments to keep food products domestic or to ship to countries other than the US?

These are realistic questions. The US, and any country that is heavily dependent on food imports, ought to consider them.

The greatest risk here is not the Coronavirus itself. The current pandemic is an uncomfortable warning about the fragility of our systems. There are far deeper and more complex challenges on the horizon.

The world should be preparing for the mega-impact of climate change, the cumulative consequences of industrial externalities and chemical-intensive agriculture practices over the past 70 years, and an aging farmer population.

Significant challenges to the future food supply chains in our globalized agricultural system include:

  • Growing global populations
  • Loss of topsoil
  • Farmer poverty, debts, and suicide
  • Droughts and the drying up of rivers and freshwater tables
  • Contamination of fresh water sources from industrial activities
  • Contamination of fresh water sources from conventional agriculture
  • Migration of younger generations to cities (i.e. not enough farm workers and future farmers)

Unfortunately, these are the real issues facing our food supplies—not just in distant lands, but right here in the US too.

The good news is that there is still an opportunity to shift things today and prepare for a sustainable future. But we have to take this seriously and act intelligently for the sake of our health, economy, and overall peace and stability.

Here are a few solutions that could have a profound impact on humanity’s resiliency and capacity to feed itself securely into the distant future.

For industry, government, and NGOs:

  • More farms and farmers. Especially small-scale organic farms managed by younger members of society who are ready to be professional agriculturalists.
  • A facelift for farming as a profession. We need to make farming digital, fun, and profitable. Training and capacity building for prospective farmers requires significant attention and has to be subsidized, incentivized, and celebrated.
  • Tracking all supply chain activities domestically and globally in real time to better predict crop yields and market access.
  • Reducing industrial food waste with the digitization of supply chains and real-time access to data to help aggregate supplies to meet demands properly.
  • Organizing supply chain solutions for B and C grade products: dehydration, canning, jarring, freezing, and other models that convert “waste” into long-term production storage of nutrient dense foods for emergencies.
  • Development of digitally integrated regional and local food sheds, and the accompanying supply chain models to facilitate the market linkage between farmers, distributors, and consumers.
  • Year-round production enhancement techniques such as greenhouses and vertical farms, especially in regions with cold winters.
  • A victory garden (urban gardening at homes, schools, and public locations) marketing campaign, including training seminars, free seeds, and free compost.

For Consumers:

  • Become part of the solution. Support local food sources, such as farmers markets and private restaurants that offer delivery. Support local farmers with CSA (consumer supported agriculture) models—or consider becoming a farmer.
  • Demand that your retailers and restaurants buy regionally and locally when possible. Demand organic, fair trade, and regenerative products and start asking for greater traceability and transparency for the products you buy to hold everyone accountable to their marketing and sourcing claims.
  • Build or participate in resilient local food systems by converting front yards, backyards, decks, patios and communal lands into food production centers.

Business as usual may no longer be usual in the post-Coronavirus supply chain, and we are hoping that this current panic will lead to a clear consensus on shifting investments, resources, production and consumption into resilient local, regional, and national agricultural food systems—in the US and around the world.

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