Our food supply chain is being forced to make substantial adjustments amid a very changed world, and it will take some time to adapt
It’s enough to make anyone concerned … maybe even a bit worried. What is happening to our food supply during the pandemic?
First, we walked into supermarkets and found empty shelves. The milk section is cleaned out, but we read about dairy farmers pouring milk into the ground. It was hard to find fresh fruits and veggies, like bananas and potatoes, yet we would see breathless television reporters showing us fields of produce being plowed under. And for a few weeks, we had been reading about more and more meat processing plants shutting down, though that has begun to change.
The Chairman of Tyson Foods told us the meat supply chain is broken. Dire warnings of upcoming shortages of meat for supermarket shelves pop up almost every day, it seems. Experts tell us farmers, ranchers, and others across the food chain are facing losses measured in the billions of dollars.
What’s going on here? How can the world’s most advanced and productive food system have come to this situation? Is our food system really broken?
No, it is not broken. Our food supply chain is resilient and innovative, but right now, it is being forced to make some substantial adjustments to a very changed world, and it will take some time to work out all the necessary modifications.
A dramatic change in production
The heart of the matter is basic economics: The global pandemic has fundamentally changed how we buy our food. The whole system functions much like a carefully choreographed and extraordinarily complex ballet to ensure that we get the products we want at prices we can afford.
The path from dirt to dinner includes farmers, ranchers, transportation to food processors, then consumer product companies, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hotels, and much more — all interconnected and dedicated to providing a steady stream of the food we eat every day. Much of the turmoil we see in our food system today reflects a massive disruption to the ballet’s staging.
The pandemic has skewed demand in all links of the food supply chain to make the current system look more like a square dance with tractors than Swan Lake.
Our food supply channels
We sometimes forget that over the past couple of decades, we have significantly increased the amount of food we eat outside our homes. We have two basic types of “demand” for food — one focused on the retail market, the other on the food service sector. Before the pandemic, we consume about half of our food dollars for at-home meals and the other half in restaurants, fast food outlets, specialty shops, and a burgeoning array of food providers.
The food service industry is defined as eating at restaurants, ordering take-out, dining at hotels, schools, hospitals, corporate offices, the military … just to name a few. Our carefully choreographed food chain is structured to serve those two segments.
Our food system has developed the unique tools and processes needed for both at-home and food service channels. Each channel demands somewhat different tools and processes. And each reflects a massive investment in channel-specific machinery and equipment, and careful development of processing, transportation and storage systems.
The pandemic devastated the food service channel of the demand picture — not by eliminating the need for food, but by shifting more and more of it back to in-home dining.
Adjusting to a ‘new normal’
When lockdowns and social distancing effectively closed the food service industry’s ability to provide dine-in eating and curtailed school lunches, hotels, and other mass feeding programs, we lost a significant portion of the “demand-pull” these food operations create. As important and valuable as home food delivery, food banks, and other charitable outlets for food are, they just can’t make up for the loss of demand from this critical food-service side of the system.
In some situations, operations didn’t have the storage capacity, processing and handling equipment, the right packaging, the right distribution systems, or some other element of the system important to handling the changed demand pattern. In some cases, the food supply simply backed up, as is the case when meat facilities began slowing down.
The disruptions to a finely-tuned system of just-in-time delivery left some producers and other parts of the food supply chain with nowhere to go. At the same time, all workers need to be kept safe, with social distancing and necessary protective equipment.
The carefully executed ballet for our pre-COVID world needed some modification and adjustments in response to our new demand patterns. But we don’t need a whole new ballet — we just need to make changes to our system and take advantage of the existing flexibility.
Americans in the food production industry are improving the food supply chain every day to make sure it gets to all of us. How much of that change remains in place in a post-COVID world is yet to be determined. But if history is any guide, the system will adapt to whatever we as consumers want.