How did the food supply get turned on it's head?
Well, the short answer is inflexible infrastructure. You see, only about 8% of US farms supply food locally. The rest are part of a complex, low-cost, high-efficiency network that keeps our restaurants and grocery stores brimming with hundreds of products and a wide variety of choices.
The problem lies in the distinct delineation between the supply chain that delivers to grocery stores and the one that delivers to the food service industry. With restaurants closing all across the country, demand at the grocery store increased, but the suppliers who distributed to those restaurants found it difficult to pivot. This is why we see images on the news of vegetables rotting on the vine and hear about livestock being slaughtered only to be disposed of.
Wait, shouldn't this be an easy fix? It's a little bit more complicated than you might think. For example, let us consider beef. Beef that is going to McDonald's is delivered in large packages and doesn't require labels, branding, or consumer information. It certainly doesn't require individualized packaging. Additionally, grocery stores tend to sell large quantities of lower end meat products such as ground beef, whereas restaurants tend to sell higher-end cut. And guess what? Ground beef and fillet mignon typically come from different cows.
The specialization of our food supply industries have made them highly efficient, but also highly susceptible to disruption. And we haven't even touched on the supply chain problems food banks are facing. "The increase in the number of people that are turning to food banks for help is about 60% more on average, compared to the same time last year," says Zuani Villarreal, director of communication for Feeding America, the country's largest hunger-relief organization.
In closing, our food supply chain is resilient in general, but in the short term, this pandemic demonstrated that it doesn't respond to crisis as quickly as we need. We may be entering a recession where many households see their income drop. It would not be at all surprising if a substantial portion of the poulation began to shift from pricey specialty items to more readily available fare at a lower price point. Just food for thought.
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