No, we’re not running out of food. It just looks that way.

Why We Wrote This

Panic buying at supermarkets spiked in the first weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns. But the food supply chain has since adjusted, making further shortages unlikely. 

Tom Brenner/Reuters
People waiting in a socially distanced line outside of the 14th Street Trader Joe's grocery store are reflected in a window following Mayor Muriel Bowser's declaration of a state of emergency due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Washington April 14, 2020.

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As restaurants shut their doors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Americans have been shopping more for groceries and eating at home. Everyone has seen the empty supermarket shelves, particularly during the first week of state-ordered lockdowns. Those scenes, coupled with recent reports of dumped crops and milk, have jolted shoppers who fret about food supplies going forward. 

In the food industry, a rapid adjustment to this unprecedented shift in demand is underway. And while some items are in short supply, the prospect of an overall shortage of food is far-fetched, say industry experts. Sure, shoppers may have to substitute brands and food items. But there is still plenty of food to go around, and logistical bottlenecks are easing. 

“I think we’re overreacting,” says Chris Mejia-Argueta at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I am very certain we’re not going to run out of food.”

Mountains of rotting squash in Florida. Midwest dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain. A South Dakota pork processing plant ordered to shut down after 400 employees tested positive for coronavirus.

Then there are the empty supermarket shelves where the flour and yeast ­– and toilet paper – used to be. It’s enough to make a shopper worry if there’s enough food to go around.

“I think the entire American public is getting a lesson in the supply chain,” says Mike Troy, editorial director of Progressive Grocer. “I bet they wish they weren’t.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

They might especially wish they weren’t if they knew, say food supply experts, that the lessons they’re getting are likely wrong.

“I think we’re overreacting,” says Chris Mejia-Argueta, director of the Food and Retail Operations Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, referring to reports of disruptions to the food industry. “I am very certain we’re not going to run out of food.”

Still, he understands why people may feel anxious if they don’t grasp exactly how the food supply chain is adapting to meet the crisis and simply see headlines about rotting vegetables and shuttered slaughterhouses. “It’s human nature to worry about things that are a mystery to us,” he says. The “black box” aspect of the food system “creates uncertainty. And uncertainty leads to hoarding and fear.”

Those feelings were on display last week in a Massachusetts supermarket where a woman wearing a face mask rooted at the back of near-empty shelves of dried beans. She rolled her cart down the aisle, then scooped up a couple dozen cans of black beans, pintos, kidneys.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Food supply chain expert Chris Mejia Argueta, director of the Food and Retail Operations Lab at MIT, poses by his home, on April 7, 2020, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says better understanding of the supply chain can help prevent hoarding.

“Emergency beans,” she told an onlooker. “Can’t have enough. ... Or maybe this is too much?” She moved as though to put some back, but then thought better of it, and shrugged. “Nah. Could be last chance.”

To reduce such uncertainty, says Mr. Mejia-Argueta, “we have to remember that the episodes we’re hearing about are local, and expected.”

Stockpiles and substitutions

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration insists there are no nationwide shortages of food, though inventories may run low in grocery stores before restocking. “Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the supply chain,” it reported last month.

None of which means that grocery shopping will feel normal any time soon. Hoarding should fade as at-home stockpiles have been built. But shoppers may still need to substitute, says Mr. Mejia-Argueta. When a favorite Italian pasta is absent, a store brand will have to do. Instead of Cheerios, we’ll eat oatmeal. Substitution helps the supply chain by spreading demand more evenly across a store’s stock.

Grocery retailers and the supply chain as a whole are busy adapting, too. They are figuring out how shoppers respond to variable supplies of items and how much they need to stock and to put on display. And, by knowing in advance what’s available from their suppliers, they can use promotions to nudge shoppers to choose some products over others, “without us even knowing it,” says Mr. Mejia-Argueta.

Before the pandemic, 54% of U.S. food dollars were spent on meals away from home. Now suppliers are scrambling to redirect food from restaurants and food service to retailers for at-home eating, a sudden and unprecedented shift in consumption.

From auto parts to flour cargoes

Take bacon, for example. Doug Baker, an executive at FMI, the food industry association, points out that “the 20 pounds of bacon intended for food service may be repackaged under a store brand in 1 pound consumer packages.” But that doesn’t happen overnight.

Likewise, logistics resources are being diverted into food transport. “One of the hardest parts now is how to move cargo from its source to where people need it,” says Mr. Mejia-Argueta. “More truckers are needed, so truckers are being diverted into the food supply system from other sectors that are momentarily quiet.” Trucks that used to carry auto parts might now be hauling flour.

As a supply-chain scientist, Mr. Mejia-Argueta has looked at what could happen to severely disrupt food production and distribution. The main risks would come from panic purchasing and hoarding, workforce shortages due to illness, and a disaster-case economic crisis.

Evidence of every one of those worst-case scenarios is already present, but not to any extent deemed threatening.

“I would tell people, to be honest, that you don’t need to worry. The supply chain will be resilient and robust enough to manage this without any issue. We will find a way,” he says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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