No, We’re Not Going to Run Out of Groceries

Those empty shelves aren’t a sign of a broken supply chain—at least not yet.

A message that says "Please limit your purchases" is posted on empty shelves for canned goods in a Giant supermarket.
It probably won’t be like this forever. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Panic-buying during the coronavirus crisis hasn’t exactly ravaged grocery stores around the country, but it has made it tougher for people to get their hands on certain items, like pasta, produce, and canned and frozen goods. Right now, the grocery supply chain is adjusting to a world without restaurant dining, one where lots of people are stockpiling for an uncertain future, or at least shopping more so they can visit their supermarket less.

If empty shelves are now a fact of life, are food supply chains straining? Yes—but experts say that, although there are a few signs of trouble, they’re still able to supply stores with plenty of food, and that they should soon adjust to the new normal.

“There are changes that are just so severe that it takes them a while to respond,” says Daniel Stanton, co-founder of the supply chain security firm SecureMarking and author of Supply Chain Management for Dummies. What we’re seeing now with delays is partially a result of the “bullwhip effect,” in which shocks in demand cause shifts that become increasingly magnified as you travel up the supply chain. This could mean, for example, that there will soon be a glut of toilet paper in stores because producers higher up in the chain are dramatically increasing shipments, even though shoppers have probably already saved up enough for a while and won’t actually be buying it at the same rate.

The shortages that grocery stores are currently experiencing are largely the result of people buying more because they predict a scarcity of goods in the future. Save for the fact that more people may be cooking at home rather than going out, actual consumption of food from grocery stores shouldn’t be rising all that much, which is partly why Purdue University supply chain management professor Ananth Iyer is not particularly worried about supplies running out. “In the long run, supply chains are trying to match average supply to average demand,” he said. “And if the average underlying demand has not gone up, but people are just front-loading their fortresses, then the supply chain will adjust to that and know it has enough capacity.”

Dealing with these initial surges in demand is, then, more a question of figuring out logistical kinks. The grocery store supply chain as a whole has around 80 to 120 days’ worth of inventory for nonperishable products, says Iyer. The hurdle is adjusting to transport higher volumes. “Really, the delay is just loading trucks and scheduling the transfers; very little is actually being produced to satisfy demand [for nonperishables].” Perishable items are a bit trickier since it’s a lot less practical to store large inventories of, say, fresh vegetables, so those supply chains do have to ramp up production. There is a possibility that bottlenecks may begin to appear at farms that use manual labor to harvest crops. Producers will have to ensure those laborers are remaining healthy. And because many of them are immigrants, recent decisions by the suspend immigrant visa services in Mexico may also affect their ability to do their jobs, especially during peak work seasons.

Importantly, COVID-19 shouldn’t directly impact the safety of the food in the supply chain. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.” However, certain shutdowns could weaken the system. “For today, my concern is that we could make policy decisions that disrupt the supply chain,” says Stanton. “Pennsylvania shut down the rest areas on their interstate. You can understand why they did that, but the effect is that truck drivers don’t have a place to stop and rest.” (The state eventually reversed the decision after public outcry.) Stanton also pointed out that decisions to close shipping ports and minimize trade with foreign countries may result in fewer imported goods being available in stores.

Grocery stores themselves, the last stop in the supply chain, are facing challenges of their own as employees have to keep coming into work and expose themselves to throngs of shoppers.  Last week, multiple reports surfaced of grocery store employees contracting the coronavirus in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and New York. Cashiers are in a particularly high-risk situation as they come into close contact with long lines of people while ringing up purchases. “Without those employees being available to go unpack and puts things on shelves, things are going to be very difficult,” says Iyer. “Those employees are doing a heroic job of keeping the shelves in sync with customer demand.”

The union representing Trader Joe’s workers is in fact trying to get hazard pay for employees so that their earnings are one-and-a-half or double the usual rate given the risks they’re enduring. “We’re all extremely exhausted, both physically and mentally,” a representative for the union told Slate in an email. “We’re coming in and keeping stores open while being helpful and courteous and upbeat, all while knowing we are expected to keep working until we get sick.” There has also been a push from unions to get the government to classify grocery store workers as first responders, which may give them more access to gloves and masks. Some stores themselves have opted to install sneeze guards at registers.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to The Gist.