The Answer to Disrupted Supply Chains in the Time of Coronavirus: Think Local

empty grocery store

Why are there no frozen peas in the supermarket? What happened to all the chicken and beef? And what about fresh fruit and veggies? Why can’t I find any rice, canned beans or peanut butter? And why are the lines so darned long? 

All over the country, frustrated consumers are asking such questions as they try to navigate a system that’s struggling to keep up with unprecedented demand. It’s hard to go grocery shopping during the novel coronavirus pandemic without feeling that something is amiss. People are feeling insecure about having sufficient food at home and I recently heard it was a two week wait to have groceries delivered from the store.

Shoppers, who are uncertain as to when social distancing and shelter-in-place orders will be lifted in their communities, are responding as you’d expect in a crisis–ordering massive amounts of groceries online, or anxiously venturing out to the supermarket and clearing off the shelves in a state of panic.

In both cases, consumers who normally eat about 50% of their meals away from home, are straining the retail supply chains that depend on long-haul trucking of goods across the country.

That crushing and unexpected demand from homebound obscures a basic fact: the nation is still awash in food and, in fact, wastes some 40% of it. Hens are still laying eggs; cows are still producing milk, and farmers are still harvesting their crops and raising their livestock. Oddly, avocados are abundant.

“The food is there. It’s just going into different spots,”  David McInerney, the chief executive of the New York-based food delivery service FreshDirect, told the New York Times. “Cruise ships are not using up all of the avocados. We have a giant surge of avocados." 

It’s a classic case of mismatch between supply and demand. With most restaurants shuttered, or limited to offering takeout, the supply chains that served the industry have more food than they can sell. Meanwhile, the separate set of supply chains that keep our supermarket shelves well stocked in normal times can’t adjust to the unexpected surge in demand from consumers.

FoodMaven’s mission has always been to identify inefficiencies in the marketplace, connecting local farmers and other producers with restaurants, hotels, universities and other institutions that need reliable, affordable and sustainable sources of healthy food.

In some cases, the food we sell is surplus that might otherwise go to waste, or it is the output of very small farmers who need a local market, or it may be imperfect produce that doesn’t meet grading standards at the big supermarket chains. (Imperfect potatoes still taste great as French fries.) In the process, we’re making sure farmers have a market for the food they produce and that we reduce food waste in the process. For example, we recently teamed up with Ardent Mills, the big Colorado flour producer, to connect them with customers for wheat flour produced by farmers transitioning to organic certification.

While demand has declined from our foodservice customers during the coronavirus pandemic, we are more committed than ever to our mission to ensure all food is used, and with good purpose. We recently launched a direct-to-consumer service, offering bulk items either through either drive-through pickup or delivery.

The current crisis is challenging to everyone as the nation’s food system struggles to adjust to an unprecedented situation. Across the U.S., there are heartening examples of local businesses banding together to support their local farmers, and of farmers finding new ways to connect with customers in their communities and, in some cases, across the nation. According to Politico, “Sales are surging for farmers who sell boxes of meat, dairy and produce direct to consumers…The trend is a rare bright spot in agriculture.”

There is no real upside to a pandemic. But it is our hope at FoodMaven that these critical supply chain disruptions—which are likely to get worse before they get better—may highlight systemic inefficiencies and lead us as a nation, and as an industry, to rethink how we get food to where it is needed most--with an eye toward flexible solutions. 

Connecting producers to their local markets is a start. It won’t entirely replace the need for regional and national distribution, but it can help ease disruptions in times of supply chain inefficiencies and result in a better, more sustainable food system.