Food supply chain reveals its weakest links

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was still shocking to see the signs posted throughout Hy-Vee in early May: “Purchases of beef, poultry and pork limited to four packages per customer.” That’s not four of each. Four total.

We fat-and-happy American con­sumers have become accustomed to walking into the grocery store and finding anything we want, any time we want. We just assume there will perpetually be eggs, flour, milk and meat on the shelves.

Coronavirus has shattered that complacent confidence.

In my nearly 25 years as an agricultural journalist, I’ve written countless lines about the unparal­leled affordability and abundance of our nation’s food supply. It’s still true, but right now, COVID-19 disruptions are testing that supply chain like never before, and its weaker links are being revealed.

From field to fork, the U.S. food system is a complex web of interac­tions involving farmers, agricultural input providers, processors, shippers, retailers and more. That network typically runs like clockwork, pow­ered by supply and demand. In the pandemic environment, the supply is still there. Farmers are still produc­ing food, but demand and process­ing have been drastically altered.

Normal food consumption has shifted from restaurants, schools and service industries to much more at-home cooking and dining. Processing plants have had to cease or slow production because of lack of labor and threats of coronavirus outbreaks. For food that does get processed, truck drivers can’t make deliveries fast enough to restock shelves from panic buying.

The system simply isn’t geared to make such abrupt changes.

That’s why milk was dumped on dairies (I’m told marketing co-ops prefer the term “disposed of”) instead of making its way into our refrigerators. It’s why chickens were euthanized, hogs were slaugh­tered and stacked like cordwood, and market-ready beef cattle had nowhere to go. I’m proud to see farmers stepping up to say “no” to this waste and donating meat from their unmarketable animals to food-insecure families. Read more about this effort in our “Farm to Food Bank” story beginning on page 14.

No doubt, COVID-19 disruptions will prompt agricultural industry leaders and policymakers to take a close look at how the food supply chain operates in the future. Some are calling for a re-evaluation and better coordination of the system, possibly from the state level. There are no easy answers, but the turmoil illuminates problems that need to be solved. The good news is that Americans will not run out of food while these issues are debated. We may just run out of choices.

In the meantime, this paradigm is accelerating a shift toward local food that was already occurring in the pre-pandemic world. Now is the perfect opportunity for more consumers to go straight to the farm for food options when possible. Farmers who have this capability need to get creative during this unprecedented time. They can pivot from supplying restaurants, spe­cialty shops and schools to selling directly to customers. They can try offering curbside deliveries and drive-through pickups. They can partner with local companies to process fresh-from-the-farm beef, pork or poultry. Some 259 Show- Me State farms and businesses are listed on the new Missouri Food Finder, an online tool launched in April to connect consumers with those who are growing, producing and selling food in their region. Farmers can register their business at www.MOFoodFinder.org, and consumers simply type in their loca­tion to see available options.

It’s also prime season for farmers’ markets, so be sure to support these venues if you can. Many have now reopened for business, adapting to the changes required by COVID-19 while still offering an outlet for producers to sell their goods and customers to find fresh, local food. As restrictions continue to be lifted, market operators say they hope “business as usual” will return.

On the bright side, empty grocery store shelves and food shortage fears may cause more consumers to ask questions that the buy-local movement has long posed: Where does my food come from? How many people does it take to get me this steak, this tomato or this gallon of milk? And what happens if the supply chain remains upended? If nothing else, perhaps this pandemic will help our nonagricultural neigh­bors gain more appreciation for those who produce, process, ship and stock our food in a delicately balanced system that has long been taken for granted.