Amid the new normal of social distancing, video–call family reunions, and limited trips outside our homes, it seems that people are cooking more than usual. This may be the reason flour is flying off the shelves and yeast is nowhere to be found. Not only has the surge in stockpiling and buying more than we need put stress on grocery store employees and shoppers, but the entire food system is overwhelmed by the new challenges COVID-19 presents. While there has been no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food, limitations on human interaction and travel have forced food manufacturers and distributors to adjust without warning or preparation so that the world can continue to eat.
The food supply adapts during emergency situations
In the global emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19, the world’s food system has been forced to adapt quickly. While one of the most obvious changes may be that our favorite restaurants and cafes have been forced to close as a result of this pandemic, that’s just one piece of our food system. Farms, production warehouses, grocery stores, and every other part of the food supply chain have had to make adjustments in this unique time due to the restrictions in place limiting things like travel and the amount of people allowed in one space at one time.
The federal government has identified many sectors as “essential critical infrastructure workers.” It has listed the types of jobs and people deemed essential to maintain infrastructure in society in order to keep things running so that our basic needs are met. This list includes healthcare professionals, law enforcement workers and public works employees who work to keep society healthy, safe and clean. Also listed are food and agriculture workers who are essential to keeping our society fed. The category of food and agriculture workers isn’t limited to grocery store clerks, cooks, and food delivery drivers; it also includes farmers, butchers, truck drivers, and line workers at food manufacturing plants. People operate at each step necessary to get food to our plates, and if any step of the food supply chain stopped or slowed down, national infrastructure would suffer in the form of shortages, delivery delays, and an increase in lower–quality items and unsafe food products.
Components of the food supply
During a crisis event, such as the case of COVID-19, individuals working on the front lines of food manufacturing become the most vulnerable components of the supply chain. If a worker gets sick or is unable to do their job, the chain breaks. The following list illustrates in detail how each step of the food supply chain has changed in light of COVID-19 to protect both employees and the general public. You may notice a common theme: Most of these structural changes are habits you should practice in your own home to keep your food, yourself, and those around you safe.
- Producers: Farmers, ranchers, and other food growers are required to maintain good agricultural practices, regulated by the USDA, to keep our food supply safe from foodborne pathogens. While many producers have responded to this pandemic with increased sanitation practices, the unprecedented nature of this time continues to present challenges to all sectors across our food system.
- Processors: Food processors include those who cut and process raw meat, prepare recipes for ready–to–eat goods, and package all those foods for shipment to retail stores. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has offered these workers guidance similar to that which producers have been given. The FDA also suggests wearing face masks while working and pre-screening employees by measuring their temperatures before each shift.
- Distribution: While truck driving seems to be a prime example of social distancing, distributors are still affected by COVID-19, especially when it comes to crossing international borders. These workers are essential to getting food to retail stores, and are therefore taking extra precautions like hand washing, keeping distance, and wearing face masks when picking up and dropping off food deliveries.
- Warehouses: Food storage facilities hold food until it is passed on to retail stores, meaning they need to vigilantly monitor temperature, moisture, and the atmosphere to prevent foodborne pathogen growth. Warehouses have taken additional precautions in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, such as increasing hand washing, sanitizing surfaces more frequently, and limiting person-to-person contact.
- Retail: Of all the components of the food supply chain, grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers’ markets are dealing with the highest volume of people, which puts employees at the greatest risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Retail stores have taken to limiting the number of customers in a store at one time, marking appropriate traffic flow with floor markers, and increasing sanitization of high–touch surfaces like carts and baskets to protect both vulnerable employees and shoppers.
- Consumers: As a consumer, it’s important to pay attention to national and international guidelines—keep your hands clean, do not touch your face, stay at least six feet apart from others, and wear a protective face mask if possible. These guidelines aren’t only for your personal protection; they also help the entire chain of food supply workers who bring food to your table.
Food supply vs. consumer demand
Consumers not only play a role in the prevention of the spread of both foodborne pathogens and COVID-19; they are also responsible for helping to maintain a consistent, resilient food supply. While people are cooking more during this pandemic, many are also buying more than they need, according to the World Economic Forum. Fear-driven hoarding not only prevents other consumers from accessing some foods and resources; it also can lead to food waste when items aren’t used in cooking and therefore spoil.
Some ways to reduce food waste include making a grocery list based on meal planning, practicing the first-in-first-out principle to use oldest foods first, understanding date labels, and utilizing all types of foods—including fresh, frozen, and canned. Despite the look of some shelves at the stores, there is not a shortage of food right now. Producers, processors, distributors, warehouses, and retailers are all working to maintain normal food stock levels, but there is plenty that consumers can do while grocery shopping to reduce strain on the food system. Taking action—like stocking but not stockpiling, washing hands frequently, and maintaining distance from others in stores—can keep everyone safe up and down the supply chain.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.