Covid-19 Lessons: Planning for a Food Supply Chain Crisis

If the Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the grocery industry and its many supporting industries need crisis preparedness and contingency plans to be able to quickly adjust to an event that can turn the status quo upside down.

We began slowly to transition from the sheltering-at-home and working-from-home mandates which impacted nearly every state in the U.S. 

As I write this column, many states have started to “open” up which means many people have returned to their work locations and many are once again enjoying meals at restaurants; getting haircuts and manicures; visiting their houses of worship and returning to something resembling normalcy after months of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Some have called this our “new normal”, some are calling it our “now normal”; whatever one chooses to call it, we must turn our attention to creating plans which are proactive, not reactive, to situations of national, or international, a crisis which impact the food supply chain from farm to table. 

“Kudos” to food retailers for their quick and exemplary response during the Covid-19 crisis, and the high level of customer service they provided in-store to their shoppers to ensure shopper safety and food availability. 

Covid-19 lessons Learned

In addition to measures such as gloves, masks, and plexiglass shields at the checkouts, most retailers established the first hour of their opening each day, for seniors and those with compromised health to do their shopping. 

This limited their exposure to crowds of people and worries of being exposed to the Covid-19, but also provided them the opportunity to obtain much-needed goods which were in short supply, such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and some food products.

Related Article: NGA Partners with ISSA to Create a Sanitation and Outbreak Prevention Program

I believe the valuable lesson retailers learned from these past months, is in the need for preparedness training for a quick shift in customer shopping habits. 

With the fear of being exposed to the virus in public spaces so prevalent, online shopping increased. 

According to an online survey conducted by Brick Meets Click, in March of this year, millions of grocery shoppers placed their first online grocery order and household penetration for home delivery and store pickup of grocery orders reached a high of 33% through May 2020. 

Retail Grocers Are Improving

While this sounds wonderful, based on personal experience, retailers were not ready to pivot and fulfill this increase on a timely basis. 

We have an immune-compromised family member, and we started doing all our grocery shopping online. Due to the high demand for online shopping, for several weeks, it took an entire week to book the first available delivery or pickup time.

This changed our meal planning and shopping habits in our home to accommodate for this waiting period. As time has passed, stores have improved their processes and I can now place an order at any of my local food stores, and receive the delivery, or pick up times, the same day. 

Grocers figured it out, but a few weeks of chaos due to the Covid-19 perhaps could have been avoided.  There are little doubt retailers now have a crisis preparedness plan developed in the event that occurs in the future which has a similar impact. 

Hopefully, lessons have also been learned by the agriculture sector as well. 

Due to a channel of distribution (foodservice) being completely shut down, there was an abundance of food, with no capacity to process into packaging for other channels of distribution.  

Bailouts Are Not Enough

It was frustrating to see the imbalance between food abundance and food insecurity.  Many sectors of agriculture were euthanizing their animals, dumping their milk, turning over their fields, while record numbers of clients lined up at food banks and shelters.

Many programs were developed to help bail out farmers who were impacted by the drop in consumption of their products, due to circumstances outside of their control.  But bailouts are short term and don’t provide long term solutions for the future. 

Will the lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, result in crisis preparedness which will provide processing capacity, feed the hungry, and provide for a healthy economy for farmers? 

Perhaps the funds spent on bailouts could be redirected to invest in back-up processing facilities which would be ready to keep the food supply chain moving the next time an event occurs which negatively impacts one, or more, industries. 

There are a couple of great examples in New York and in the West, where industry manufacturers came together, working with USDA dairy programs, to develop solutions to process excess dairy products and deliver them to food banks to reach those in need of food. 

Now there is a proven supply chain model to share with other industries to successfully provide solutions for all involved in the food supply chain.

This is crisis preparedness training and what we have just lived through, provides for a great case study from which to learn. If agriculture doesn’t plan now for a future crisis, history will surely repeat itself.