While some reduction in stock still seems apparent on visits to grocery stores, food supply chains on the whole have been fairly resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by: Jan Swoope/Dispatch Staff
June 10, 2020 10:37:15 AM
A few days ago I made the dreaded periodic trip to the grocery. After scoping out the parking lot to gauge how crowded the place was, I took my chances. With mask and gloves, I breached the entrance. After discarding two or three carts with wheels that wanted to drag me port or starboard, I lucked out, then retrieved my list that would efficiently take me from one side of the store to the other in what I hoped would be quick order.
Early in the pandemic, we were shocked to find once-full grocery shelves sometimes bare of the tried-and-true stock we were accustomed to. At some point, the sight became more familiar and we went prepared to substitute, or do without. Then, stay-at-home guidelines were lifted; people began easing back out into the world. Retail store parking lots had cars in them once again. Bank lobbies reopened. People were milling in commercial businesses -- some behaving as though there was no cause to be cautious at all. Maybe it's because we so badly want life to get back to "normal."
Seeing more familiar levels of activity may have lulled me into expecting grocery shortages to be a thing of the past. Surely we're no longer panic-buying. So, I was somewhat surprised to find a few items in short -- or no -- supply.
With that outing fresh in mind, I was interested when a release out of the University of Mississippi arrived in my inbox. In it, food experts and registered dietitians offered some insight on supply chain and maximizing food provisions. Below are a few gleanings.
To better cope with the impact of the pandemic on the food industry, consumers need to first understand how the food supply-and-demand process functions, advised Jim Taylor, UM associate professor of hospitality management and director of the online master's program in hospitality management; and Laurel Lambert, associate professor of nutrition and registered dietitian via the release.
"There's not really a food shortage per se, but what happened in the supply chain is all of these primary purchasers of dairy and proteins have been shut down," Taylor said. "When the restaurants shut down, there was no vehicle to change these delivery methods and packaging such that it would hit the retailers and then us consumers.
"So, the producers stopped producing and the supply chain came to a halt. Now that restaurants are opening up, the supply chain is getting back to normal, but it's about a three-week lag from the field to the plate."
The fear that there is no meat and dairy in the pipeline has caused retailers to increase prices for consumers, Taylor said.
One national trend is consumers connecting with local farmers for, beef, for example. If two people want to split meat from a cow, they can buy it from a processor that can ship the meat to them.
"It's happening locally, but it's small-scale," Taylor said. "It's like putting a Band-aid on the problem until consumers start purchasing foods at restaurants at a level they did before and restaurants start purchasing products comparable to what they did in the past."
Food prep reimagined
"Home cooking has definitely increased during this time," Lambert said. "I think people will be challenged on what to do with the leftovers from the meals and the leftover ingredients. For example, what do you do with the leftover half-head of cabbage? What about leftover egg whites? When should you freeze food or throw it out?
"I also think they may be shocked at their grocery bill. So, shopping more economically or being more thrifty when buying groceries may be needed."
An increasing number of people are gardening and growing their own vegetables. As the pandemic lingers, Lambert said she sees a tremendous need and opportunity to educate the public on what to do with all the produce they grow.
"People need to learn how to can and freeze produce and still maintain nutritional value and texture," she said. "With an increase in home cooking, there is also the need for education on food safety, knife handling skills, food temperatures and handling to prevent food-borne illnesses."
Lambert shared suggestions on making food supplies last longer. Most are from a Food and Culinary Specialists newsletter and include:
My previous weekly grocery shopping is now every two to two-and-a-half weeks, by design. On the whole, the grocery supply chain has been resilient. Perhaps by the next time I shop, it will be even moreso. Now, if they would only open up more check-out lanes. And, please, 6 feet apart in that long line. We all want this to be over as soon as possible.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.