What’s Running Out in American Supermarkets?

John Sihn '22, Contributor

With a week of spring break left, my mom and I faced a dire problem: we had run out of food. The hotel had stopped serving breakfast. Nearby restaurants had closed down. Consequently, we had to make a grocery run.
Despite having seen images of empty shelves in grocery stores on the news, we put our masks on and tried our luck at a local Whole Foods. After shoving through the frenzy of desperate shoppers, we peered at the endless rows of empty shelves in awe. Fortunately, we were able to scrounge some remaining boxes of oatmeal and some cans of soup\; much to our disappointment\; however, we were unable to find any toilet paper.
Besides emptying the shelves of grocery stores, the pandemic has also affected laborers in the food industry and prevented import of staple foods, according to Reuters.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing over 1.3 million workers in the food industry, has reported that at least 1500 of its members have contracted the virus and that thirty of them died from it this month.
Even the discovery of a single case of COVID-19 can force the country’s industrial sectors to close down, as the laborers often work in close proximity. Stocks of essential foods such as rice and other grains also took a hit as their chief exporters, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, have limited their exports, according to Forbes.
Notwithstanding such alarming statistics, the US’s food stockpile is not facing a major shortage, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Indeed, America continues to face food waste issues, according to CNBC.
A shift in American lifestyles has led to a shift in the consumer base: according to National Geographic, various restaurants have had to dispose of surplus food as they closed their doors while families at home always need more food to consume.
However, because restaurants created greater supply than household demand, a surplus of numerous food products was generated. For instance, the Dairy Farmers of America, a national milk farming cooperative, reported that farmers are throwing out as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk a day as a result of surplus.
Hence, as Steve Meyer, an economist from CNN, speculates, “we have a lot of pork, we have a lot of chicken, we have a lot of beef in cold storage… we can draw on that, should we have some shortages.”
Why then, are our shelves empty? The chief issue lies in processing. With facilities like Smithfield closing due to safety concerns, less food can be processed, packaged, and delivered to consumers, leading to less food reaching our shelves. The supply chain and processing industry, however, is projected to make an adjustment soon.
“It’s a several weeks’ process. The supply chain takes time to catch up,” announced Professor Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Logistics, “You may not get your favorite cereal, but you’ll get cereal.”
As such, we need not worry about actual food shortages for the foreseeable future\; the supply chain will readjust, and the US will continue to maintain a significant surplus of food.