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Learning from empty shelves

Pandemic related panic buying, hoarding, supplier shortages and manufacturing capacity have all contributed to shortages at the grocery store.

For example, according to Supply Chain Management Review, “When restaurant dining options diminished because of the pandemic, households began preparing more meals at home; spaghetti became abundantly popular. Spaghetti was also subject to brief panic buying and sustained stockouts. There was a brief pause before replenishment. The supply recovery for spaghetti took about five weeks.”

Now months after the initial pandemic lockdown stores are still experiencing shortages. Civil unrest and concern over the coming election is also pushing some to once again start buying increased amounts.

Rachelle King quote on panic buying

On its first-quarter conference call on Oct. 2, Sean Connolly, CEO of Conagra, the parent of Birds Eye, Slim Jim and other foods brands, said demand continues to exceed capacity due to retailers’ early build-up of holiday inventories, and demand is “not by any stretch normalized yet.”

Mr. Connolly added, “We’re going into a season where all the outdoor dining is going to go away in a lot of parts of the country and cold and flu season is upon us. So it’s plausible that demand can even lift from here.”

System vulnerabilities

When it comes to a pandemic, anywhere the food system relies on workers: people who pick the veggies, drive the trucks, and restock the shelves.  Illness or natural disasters can shut things down very quickly.

Many producers are huge in scale. For example, big meatpacking plants are very good at producing affordable food. But their size also makes the country vulnerable to shocks: A single flood or fire could shut down a significant portion of the food system.

To prepare for future disasters we might want to encourage food companies to have five or six food processing plants scattered around the countryside, rather than one giant regional plant. That would cost more, but it would be more resilient.

When it comes for preparation at home, it is important to remember that prior to the pandemic almost half of all meals were eaten outside of the home. So naturally grocery purchases would go up. This is also true for things like toilet paper. As Will Oremus of OneZero explained in a post on Medium, people really do need more toilet paper at home because they aren’t using the bathrooms in office buildings, schools and restaurants anymore. The paper giant Georgia Pacific estimated that people staying at home full time would need to buy 40 percent more TP.

The larger issue is that supply chains just aren’t cut out for the shift in demand. Just like food — which is split into two supply chains for restaurants and grocery stores — toilet paper is divided between industrial and consumer markets. That toilet paper in public restrooms comes in giant rolls. And so, just like food, companies can’t just turn the trucks headed for the office parks and send them to grocery warehouses. They need to retool their supply chains to deliver household-sized products to grocery stores.

How to insure your food supply

Taking advantage of dehydrated and freeze-dried foods packaged for long-term storage is certainly the simplest way to insure that no matter what ups and downs the grocery industry might face in the future your family will have enough to eat.

We typically spread our purchases among three different sources mostly because each offers something unique. Augason Farms has a few more vegetarian options, MyPatriotSupply has the best calorie per dollar ratio in their kits plus they have COFFEE! and Emergency Essentials carries a little bit of everything including the cook-in-the-bag meals from Mountain House that we like to pack in our emergency go bags.

Food shortages can affect those companies too and cause delays – like when the meatpacking plants closed due to COVID, so it is better to get your orders in sooner rather than later. And don’t forget to increase your toilet paper stash by 40% too!

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