Food Security and COVID-19

As we have seen, hoarding causes things to disappear from supermarket shelves. We also know it is illogical, since there is neither increased need for some of those items, nor a production shortage of them. (The first and most obvious example was toilet paper.)

I shop only every 10 days or so and am surprised at what has happened in that time. Last week, all the dried pasta and cheap jars of marinara were gone, which was somewhat understandable, since they will keep. But the run on apples? That was even before social media users began worrying over the scarcity of flour and other bored-baking ingredients.

Might food begin to disappear, not from hoarding but due to genuine scarcity? The answer seems to be no, generally, though of course the poor are always at risk of food insecurity (and what “poor” means in this economy is yet to be understood).

The Food and Drug Administration said on March 17: “There are no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the United States and no widespread disruptions have been reported in the supply chain.”

The International Food Policy Research Institute said on March 10, “[W]e have not seen major signs that COVID-19 is causing food shortages or price hikes. […] Prices for staple crops (like wheat, maize, and rice) have remained rather stable since the outbreak and, during February, world market prices for wheat and maize prices even showed slight declines. While the price of rice was slightly up by 1%, none of the observed fluctuations seem related to the coronavirus outbreak.”

They add that “unlike SARS, MERS, or the avian flu, COVID-19 has not spread through the livestock sector, thus not directly impacting on livelihoods of farmers or causing immediate food shortages.”

They do admit that “disruption from transport interruptions and quarantine measures” might have some impact on “higher valued food items” such as lobster.

Dr. Peter Goldsmith is Director of the Food and Agribusiness Program at University of Illinois, and Principal Investigator and Director, USAID Feed the Future Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (SIL).

He told me by email, “The disruptions come from several sources, each with their own dynamic structure. Combined, they present a lot of certainty as to what at the moment drives the shortage or disruption. Clearly, hoarding affects spot availability, but…since there is no structural shortage, peak demand will slacken and supply will catch up….

“A significant disruption is the pivoting of the agri-food system back to food at home…. The shift to prepared foods and food-away-from-home consumption has been the dominant food trend over the past 30 years. Now, overnight, people are heading back to the grocery store or ordering from Amazon Pantry. This presents a challenge for food manufacturers and retailers, but a welcome one. Obviously, restaurants will be forever be disrupted and will rethink their business models.

“[T]ravel bans and fear of foreign travel have not extended to the food system. There is no relationship between COVID and imported foods. The US is highly dependent on food imports. Closing the borders to imports would be highly disruptive and inflationary.

“There are disruptions in processing plants, which are of concern. The same can be true with distribution centers. The upside is that many of these are highly automated, so distancing and deep cleaning are manageable. There are [also] redundancies, called the ‘Law of four’ in the food system, so when suppliers, plants or DCs go offline, others can expand. This also reflects the global nature of supply chains where managers are long-experienced hedging for weather, political, currency, [and other] disruptions.

“Finally, the population dynamics and disease patterns of COVID are quite different in food-supply regions of the country compared with food-demand regions, due in part to population density and travel-pattern differences. Social distancing strategies in downstate Illinois may be more effective under the presence of COVID, than in Chicago or St. Louis. So the “rural” nature of the food system may be helpful in keeping food plants and crop supplies up and operating.

“In sum,” Dr. Goldsmith said, “food supply chains should fare well….”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.