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Innovating food supply chains for COVID-19

The emergence of COVID-19 in the United States has brought the greatest shift to modern history’s food supply chain. With a sudden surge in demand, driven partially by individuals stockpiling in anticipation of food shortages, as well as the sudden and extraordinary shift in food consumption shifting from restaurants and school systems to the home, supply chains had to be re-imagined on short order.

This demand will likely last well into 2021, possibly beyond, as there is no clear or immediate end of the pandemic. The ongoing COVID-19 response provides immediate and long-term lessons about the importance of grocery sector resilience in a local community’s overall resilience. 

In numbers, at the start of the pandemic, grocery sales increased by more than 25 percent. We previously discussed the importance of grocery stores within communities and their role as a critical lifeline. As this demand shifted, manufacturers of key items were challenged to support demand. C&S Wholesale Grocers and other companies had to find innovative approaches to meet record demand and ensure communities received their fair share of scarce products like toilet paper and canned goods. 

This approach included building relationships with new, smaller manufacturers who are farther away in the distance, working with current manufacturers to focus on top-selling items and reducing variety, leveraging workers from the foodservice industry and setting up small, independent grocers online shopping platforms. Eight months after the start of the pandemic, both in-person and online grocery sectors continue to adjust to record sales, and the supply chain continues to adapt by investing in warehouses and hiring workers.

During this time, government entities have played a supportive role in the supply chain — they recognized the strength of existing distribution channels. However, they did not anticipate cascading impacts on a complex global supply chain when the entire nation’s demand is high. A fundamental principle of emergency management is establishing priorities across the whole community — however, there were no national priorities or one set of standards to follow.  

This large gap resulted in states and jurisdictions implementing a patchwork approach and competing for scarce resources. Despite the national and global nature of this pandemic, we are still under the paradigm of a global pandemic being “locally executed, state-managed, and federally supported.”’

This paradigm worked in other large disasters, including Hurricane Sandy (2012) and the 2017 hurricane season. During these incidents, manufacturers could shift critical items into impacted areas from elsewhere nationally. Non-profit and government relief (e.g., points of distribution sites, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), waivers and exemptions) lasted several weeks to months. However, COVID-19 has altered our food landscape long-term. Heading into winter, it is increasingly apparent that the nation is entering into another pandemic wave alongside flu season and a confluence of increased threats, including persistent wildfires in the West, storms in the Gulf Coast, and ongoing and prospective civil unrest. With these threats, future waves of panic buying and product shortages are possible, as has been seen recently in Germany, triggered by a spike in cases. There are already signs that the rush to buy holiday products may coincide with another COVID-19 wave.

Traditional mechanisms to support disaster feedings, such as distribution sites and leveraging food banks, have become more challenging, as jurisdictions struggle to distribute food safely with limited resources. Since then, novel mechanisms have emerged, such as the USDA’s Farmers to Food Box program and California’s Great Plates Delivered program. In addition, the Pandemic EBT program emerged to support millions of students who lost access to school meals due to school closures. Still seeing the gap in feeding children, school meals are now free and offered to remote learners

Furthermore, states pursued SNAP flexibility to give impacted households additional purchasing power, as the number of recipients spiked to record numbers. Lastly, to support household purchasing power and food programs long-term, the government must identify opportunities to support and maintain the whole food supply chain, from farms and manufacturers to warehouses and public access points (i.e., restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and food banks) through non-financial support.

Going forward, states should continue to move towards a regional approach with the same policies and definitions across boundaries (similar to states coordinating reopening plans and travel advisories); this would lessen confusion and soften the dramatic shifts the supply chain saw earlier this year. It takes time for the system to adjust to constraints and meet demand. Governments can leverage their unique situational awareness and help prioritize scarce resources to support the private sector. 

In the future, more nuanced prioritization of critical/essential sectors may be necessary to allocate limited resources to stabilize the food supply chain — sanitation/cleaning supplies, PPE and rapid testing for workers, and trucks for deliveries. And as we look ahead, this may also mean ensuring food supply chain workers can access vaccines and other countermeasures, given their status as essential workers.  This includes public-facing frontline employees in addition to employees working at manufacturing plants and distribution centers.

Finally, if the supply chain needs future prioritization and advocacy, the appointment of a national “Food Czar” (as was done in New York City) to drive urgency, encourage responsible consumer behavior, and stabilize the food lifeline could be beneficial. As we learn more about the virus, the government can help the private sector assess future risks to the supply chain, based on how our industry specifically operates. Government has the ability to connect stakeholders within the food supply chain and build partnerships between unlikely sources in a more holistic and coordinated way. 

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic our nation has experienced, but it is the first one that is impacting a global just-in-time food supply chain at this scale. Because of the urgency and time to make impactful change, the food supply chain and emergency managers should not waste this unique opportunity to assist our sector’s gaps, codify our successes, and build towards a more resilient nation. 

Katie Murphy is Senior Manager of Business Continuity at C&S Wholesale Grocers, the largest wholesale grocery supply company in the U.S. supplying more than 7,700 independent supermarkets, chain stores, military bases and institutions with over 137,000 different products.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.


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