Commentary

There's Plenty Of Food Out There. Getting It Home Is The Challenge

Maybe this sound familiar. You go to the Costco website for paper goods but there are none (and those incredibly cheap Sachs peanuts in a shell have disappeared from the inventory entirely). You head to Amazon and see that the tuna fish you normally buy locally is about three times the price. As for fresh food and staples like butter, Amazon sends you to its Whole Foods site. You fill up your cart with what you can -- quite a few items are “unavailable” -- only to discover “no delivery windows available” when you go to check out. “Please come back later.”

And if you dare to venture to the store, it’s a similar situation.

“You wouldn’t know it from the bare grocery store shelves across the country, but America has plenty of food. The challenge is getting it from the farm to your table,” Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman tell us  in The Wall Street Journal this morning.

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“Companies that supply meat, vegetables and other staples are struggling to redirect the nation’s sprawling food supply chain to meet a surge in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurant closures and shoppers’ rush to stock their pantries are forcing the agriculture industry to boost production, hire new employees and set up ‘war rooms’ to keep grocery stores stocked,” they add.

Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue “says Americans don’t need to panic about getting their next meal and should stop hoarding food,” according to  a Nexstar Media Wire report on New Orleans ABC affiliate WGNO. “That’s just common courtesy by leaving something there for our fellow neighbors,” says Perdue, adding that farmers are working diligently to keep up with demand.

“Food industry executives assure the public there is no food shortage, but that doesn’t mean the coronavirus poses no threat to the food system. As the pandemic persists, labor shortages in transportation and other areas of the food industry could soon prove to be a problem,” Jenny Splitter writes  for Forbes.

Andrew Novakovic, agricultural economist at Cornell University, tells her that “the U.S. has plenty of food available for the long haul” but “points to a number of weak spots in the food transportation system that could be aggravated by the increased demand.”

American Trucking Association spokesman Sean McNally, however, “says that he’s not heard anything about the COVID-19 crisis exacerbating a truck driving shortage. ‘Trucks are still moving and delivering to grocery stores,’ he says,” Splitter adds.

In New York City, “food distributors and other experts are not concerned the city will run out of food -- at least not in the short term. Rather, they are rushing to put together the logistics of feeding millions of housebound New Yorkers, as they begin to feel the effects of an unprecedented economic dislocation,” Katy Lederer writes for The New York Times.

“We have a large number of contracts in place and are ready to hit the ‘send’ button for food, but what we really need to think through is the distribution of that food,” Kate MacKenzie, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, tells Lederer. “We are modeling, we are planning for all kinds of scenarios and thinking about certainly our most vulnerable, but obviously all New Yorkers.”

Drivers aren’t the only potential labor problem.

“One major concern is a coming labor shortage thanks to a bottleneck in H-2A guest worker visas, which provide the agriculture industry with its seasonal workforce,” writes Greg Nichols for ZDNet. But “a host of new techniques known collectively as ‘precision agriculture’ or ‘agricultural intelligence’ can help,” he continues. 

“Agrifood venture company Finistere Ventures recently released its ‘2019 AgriFood Tech Investment Review,’ which found that venture capital has been flooding agtech with backing over the past year, driving developments that in some cases could help mitigate disruptions,” Nichols reports.

New research from GfK, which has set up a COVID-19 resource center on its website, finds that 85% of Americans say they plan to alter their buying habits due to the threat of the virus. A national online sample of 1,076 U.S. residents 18 and over finds they expect to:

-- Prepare food more often

-- Shop during non-peak hours

-- Do more online shopping

They also expect “to spend more on ‘essentials’ such as cleaning products, canned goods, and bottled water and less on apparel, toys, and other ‘optional’ items,” according to the GfK news release

Elsewhere in Marketing Daily today, Steve Ellwanger covers the Wednesday Q3 conference call by General Mills, the the first major food marketer to explain its current operations as food consumption shifts dramatically from restaurants to homes. And Sarah Mahoney writes about Costco’s $1 billion cash purchase of Innovel Solutions, which transports and installs bulky purchases such as appliances and furniture over “the last mile.”

Meanwhile, my local farmer’s market is implementing a number of safety features this Saturday, starting with moving from its winter quarters inside the local community center to the commuter parking lot. 

"The Department of Agriculture has stated that outdoor markets are an essential part of the food chain and remain a safe option for access to fresh food at a time when we really need it. Please know this will not be your typical farmer’s market experience. We are taking robust measures to eliminate close contact between shoppers, and between shoppers and vendors,” state the organizers of the Hastings Farmer’s Market. They detail the measures in an email and blog post.

Be smart. Stay safe.

1 comment about "There's Plenty Of Food Out There. Getting It Home Is The Challenge".
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  1. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, March 20, 2020 at 9:14 a.m.

    Thanks, Thom. You, too.

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