June 18, 2020 -- When the coronavirus pandemic began, Americans not only worried about getting sick, but were alarmed by depleted grocery shelves, predictions of food shortages, meat plant shutdowns, and headlines about supply chains breaking. Several months into the pandemic, the U.S. food supply has taken its hits but remains undaunted.
All those bare shelves? “They were dramatic, but not emblematic,” says Daniel Sumner, PhD, a distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. Early on, panicked consumers raced to stockpile canned goods, rice, dried beans, and other staples, creating eerie impressions of scarcity in stores. But the food supply chain has remained surprisingly strong, according to Sumner. “It’s much more resilient and solid now than I would have thought 2 months ago.”
During the pandemic, meat processing businesses appeared to be the weakest link throughout the food supply chain. Meat processing plants have been virus hot spots as workers have fallen ill with COVID-19, some of them dying. Starting in early April, affected plants began closing. “Millions of pounds of meat will disappear,” warned John Tyson, chairman of the major meat producer Tyson Foods. “The food supply chain is breaking.”
Tyson also revealed that his company had put new safety measures in place: taking workers’ temperatures, increasing cleaning and sanitizing, and using social distancing. Other meat processing companies made similar changes.
As plants closed from outbreaks, the industry took to publicly calling on the federal government to intervene and keep meat operations running. Whether U.S. consumers truly faced meat shortages from shuttered plants has since been called into question. On June 16, The New York Timesran an article stating that while companies were sounding an alarm, they exported 129,000 tons of pork to China in April.
“The meat companies were saying that the sky was falling and it really wasn’t,” Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watchdog group,” told The Times. “It wasn’t that there was not enough supply. It was that the supply was being sent abroad.”
The data on meat exports “is potentially embarrassing for an industry that trumpeted its role in feeding the American public to argue to keep plants operating during the pandemic,” according to the article. It also said “the industry stands by its warning about shortages and the need to keep the plants operating.” Amid the controversy, the situation has returned close to normal.
In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing plants essential infrastructure and ordered them to remain open. Plants have reopened, even though some workers have protested that conditions remain unsafe.
By mid-June, the meatpacking industry was back to operating at 97% capacity, says Sumner, who also directs the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center.
Fruits and Vegetables not Disrupted
The produce sector has remained relatively unscathed, Sumner says.
“We have been waiting and thinking that we may end up with significant outbreaks among farmworkers,” he says. “But there hasn’t been a disruption there.”
It’s possible that many farmworkers might have already gotten sick and recovered without seeking treatment, he says. Certainly, the conditions exist for a COVID-19 outbreak. “Many of the people we talk about in the food system are among the poorest in North America. The vulnerability is really a function of the poverty,” Sumner says.
The majority of farmworkers are immigrants, often from Mexico, he says. “The biggest concern is how people live. When you’re poor, you have a harder time keeping your distance, either because your work requires you to be with people or you live very closely with people in a small apartment. It’s hard to stay safe in that context.”
“That is something we’ve been worried about, but there’s been no widespread impact on the food system,” Sumner says.
Weak Links in the Chain
While the nation’s food supply has remained abundant, the pandemic has exposed the system’s flaws -- a stress test of sorts.
Decades of consolidation in U.S. agriculture have been shown to pose risks. For example, the country has plenty of food animals, but a there was a bottleneck at the meatpacking plants, where a limited number of major factories control much of the industry. “It’s really stark in the case of meats,” Sumner says.
“Having such a concentrated sector is not good,” says Miguel Gomez, PhD, an associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He specializes in studying food supply chains.
“Our food supply chain is resilient in general, but in the short run, this pandemic demonstrated that it doesn’t respond to crisis as quickly as we need.”
For example, the U.S. food supply chain has been too inflexible to shift a glut of products from the weakened food service sector (which includes restaurants, hotels, university dining halls, and other places that serve food outside of the home) to the supermarket sector.
“Before the pandemic, an average consumer would have spent half of his food purchase budget in the supermarket to prepare at home and half in restaurants, cafeterias, and the like,” Gomez says.
“The food service supply chain is completely disconnected from the supermarket supply chain,” he says. When farmers and suppliers lost business in the food service sector as clients shut down, it was difficult for them to pivot to the supermarket sector.
“That’s why we saw vegetables not being harvested and milk being dumped,” Gomez says. “At the same time, we saw empty shelves in the stores. That shows that all the milk and foods that were heading to the restaurants didn’t make their way to the supermarkets and they were wasted.”
Therefore, the issue isn’t shortages, but repurposing, not an easy problem to remedy quickly. “The problem is that if you’re bringing lettuce to supermarkets, you have to worry about labels and information to the consumer. Packages are smaller -- different boxes, different types of trucking.”
“If you think about lettuce going to a restaurant like McDonald’s or any food service, you have larger packages without the labels, without any branding.”
“This pandemic made evident that with that degree of specialization, we failed in repurposing foods faster, especially perishable products,” Gomez says.
Specialization is highly efficient, but “thinking about just economic efficiency is very myopic. We need to think about resilience and how we can find ways in which food can be repurposed from the supermarket channel to food service, and vice versa,” he says.
One solution would be to have distributors that can handle food for restaurants and supermarkets alike. “We need to make sure we have a secure flow of products so we don’t have these disruptions that cause food waste and stockouts [lack of store inventory],” Gomez says.
Sumner points out other significant risks in the system. “One of the things we’re vulnerable about,” he says, “is how is the food service system going to come back?”
That sector is having a tough time planning for future trends, with so many unknowns. For example, Sumner’s not sure his campus will open for in-person classes in the fall, a dilemma that bedevils universities across the land. If students come flocking back, would they live in the dorms and eat in the dining halls?
Will restaurants make a comeback? “I’ve seen headlines that said restaurants have come back faster than somebody thought, and the next headline says nobody is yet going to restaurants,” Sumner says.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how fast things are coming back. It really is the case that there’s lots of uncertainty.”
Food Banks Also Face Supply Chain Problems
Food remains ample for people with enough income or government benefits, according to Sumner. “I don’t think there’s any question that people who have the resources are going to have access to plenty of healthy food.”
But food insecurity poses a growing threat, especially with the exploding numbers of people who have lost jobs in the wake of shutdowns. Many have lined up for miles in their cars and waited for hours for food giveaways.
“The increase in the number of people that are turning to food banks for help is about 60% more on average, compared to the same time last year,” says Zuani Villarreal, director of communication for Feeding America.
Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, is a nationwide network of 200 food banks that partner with 60,000 food pantries, meal programs, community centers, and shelters to provide food to people in need. Feeding America estimates that due to the pandemic, more than 54 million people in the U.S. will struggle with hunger in 2020, including a potential 18 million children.
Already, the effects have been staggering. No food bank has remained untouched, according to Villarreal. During a natural disaster, one or two food banks might be affected, but neighboring ones can step up to assist, she says. “This pandemic is really impacting all 200 food banks, and that is something that is unprecedented. We’ve never seen something like this so quickly have an effect on the supply chains and the increased demand.”
Food banks are also trying to adapt to disrupted supply chains, Villarreal says.
Before the pandemic, Feeding America relied on several avenues for food donations, including farmers, restaurants, caterers, and hotels. Traditionally, though, the largest donors have been retail grocery stores that give away excess food. But as stay-at-home orders spread across the country, grocery stores faced so much demand that they no longer could divert as many products to food banks, Villarreal says. Donations from restaurants and hotels also fell.
“We’ve seen contractions throughout the supply chain,” she says.
With donations down, “food banks are having to purchase more product than before,” she says. They’ve scrambled to buy food from manufacturers and distributors and other sources. Still, they can’t always purchase what they need, Villarreal says. “The availability has been limited.”
For many Americans, it’s been unsettling to see images of crowds lining up for food while farmers destroy crops and dairies dump milk.
To help bridge this disconnect, in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Under the new effort, the federal government purchases fresh produce, dairy, and meat from small farms and works with food banks and other groups to distribute the boxes to people in need. By early June, the program had distributed 5 million food boxes, with plans to expand that number to 40 million by June 30, according to a USDA press release.
While Gomez views the effort as an important start, he believes the federal government needs to increase the program’s funding and “scale up because there are many people in need.”
Changes in the Food Landscape
While experts aren’t concerned that the country will run low on food, shocks to supply chains have changed the food landscape. Shoppers have paid higher prices at the grocery store, for example.
Furthermore, Gomez and Sumner say that people won’t always be able to get the cut of meat or the brand of yogurt they want. “What we’re seeing now is that the variety, the assortment of food in the grocery stores, is less,” Gomez says. “That’s going to be a change because in this country, we’ve been used to having all products year-round, all the different brands that we want.”
Finally, Gomez says, “We are entering a recession. For many households, income is going to drop. If I were a farmer or a food manufacturer, I would be thinking that these people will shift from fancy specialty foods to more basic foods at lower prices. I think that’s going to be a trend that’s going to affect the supply chains. I think we’re going to see that very soon.”