Amid Empty Shelves, Experts Say There's Enough Food for Everyone

It's time to take a deep breath and let the supply chain respond to this unprecedented event.

Empty store shelves are seen in a supermarket as people has been stocking up for food and other essential items fearing the supply shortages in Brampton, Canada on March 22, 2020. (Photo by Sayed Najafizada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photo: NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

While much at this moment is uncertain, food distributors want consumers to know this important and reassuring fact: there is more than enough food in this country. Despite shoppers finding near or completely empty shelves upon trips to supermarkets in the past few days and weeks, Lowell Randel, vice president of government and legal affairs at the Global Cold Chain Alliance, assured Allrecipes that, "There is not a shortage of food in the United States. U.S. food supply is strong. The supply chain is strong. Our member facilities are full."

The empty shelves, it seems, have to do with suppliers playing catch up, as consumers have been stocking up more than normal after the national coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) emergency was declared. Although the shelves may be temporarily lacking in that ingredient you're looking for, Randel confirmed that shelves are being replenished.

You can also take comfort in this reminder from Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at Canada's University of Guelph: while it may feel like there has been a spike in need, we're still the same population with basically the same amount of hunger as before. As he explained, "Demand hasn't fundamentally changed. We're still the same number of people, consuming roughly the same number of calories this week that we were two weeks ago."

But now, we're eating primarily at home, so there is a period of time during which we will need to adjust to how and where we get food and eat. Instead of ballparks, movie theatres, airports, restaurants, and the like, we will move into household procurement. The supply chain is just catching up, having to adjust to these changes.

Fraser explained using an inconsequential but illustrative example, movie theatre popcorn: "We're not going to be buying much popcorn in cinemas for the next six months, but maybe we're going to shift, and we're going to be eating the same amount of popcorn but we're going to be eating microwave popcorn and Jiffy Pop and getting it from NoFrills [a Canadian supermarket]. So the supply chain is going to have to adapt in that regard."

And in the event COVID was to impact one factory or area of production particularly harder than another, food retailers and distributors are putting in place strategies to mitigate worse case scenarios. This helps ensure that supply continues to arrive on store shelves. As Julie Anna Potts, Meat Institute President and CEO, shared that "Much like the fire in Holcomb, Kansas, at a beef packing plant this summer, if a plant or region is 'offline' due to coronavirus, other plants likely will pick up some of that capacity. It is impossible to predict, however, the scenarios for individual plants across the nation."

The Role You Have to Play

With this in mind, it may be a good time to ease up on the quantities you are purchasing at the supermarket. Do you really need 12 loaves of bread, or would two or four suffice for the few weeks current guidelines suggest you stay at home in isolation? Keep in mind, even in cities and countries where more strict isolation requirements are put in place, people are still allowed to leave their homes to purchase food. Consider buying enough for a few weeks at a time, and then planning to restock at a later date.

Just as we are doing our part to socially distance, easing up on the supply chain by using common sense could help take some of the pressure off in the short term and ease some of the disruptions we've been seeing. Again, both Fraser and Randel confirmed that we will be able to return to supermarkets and shop amid COVID quarantine shut-downs, so make practical buying decisions. Perishable items should be bought thoughtfully, as it's important not to waste or allow food to rot.

Non-perishable items like pasta, beans, and frozen items are great to keep on hand, but overstuffing freezers (and refrigerators) make it difficult to circulate air and maintain the cold temperature. As Randel notes, "Use common sense. You don't need to stock up for a month. Yes, you want to have some food on hand. But you don't need to buy out a whole shelf of a product."

Focusing on the positives and enjoying the small pleasures may sound trite at a time like this, but perhaps it is important to shift our perspective onto the things we can control. As Fraser encouraged, "[For] many of us, the only thing we're doing right now is going to the grocery store, so let's have some good dinners with our families."

He continues, "It may sound hokey, but get your kids together and make a nice meal, sit down and enjoy yourselves. Buy a nice bottle of wine if that's what you want to do. We can't go to the hockey arena, and we can't go to the movies, but we can have a nice dinner at home."

When mental and emotional health can feel somewhat in flux, we know that nourishing our bodies with healthy dishes and gathering online or on the phone or as a family (when possible and within reason) can help diminish some of that.

How You Can Help Others

In addition to the threat to health, COVID is a threat to the economic security of many Americans. Those individuals and families may be less concerned with stocking up for a few weeks inside and more concerned about where their next meal will come from. Food insecurity remains a major issue in the United States, and this crisis will exacerbate that for millions. If you can, please consider donating to or a local food bank.

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