Check out the audio version of this article on my podcast: Click Here to listen!
How the Coronavirus is Affecting our Food Supply
When to Stock up, What to Buy, Why shelves are Empty, and How to React to it all
You saw that Trump officially announced a national state of emergency concerning the Coronavirus. You’ve seen the pictures and videos ripping through your social media feed like wild fire. You’ve seen the lines around stores. You’ve heard about the lack of toilet paper and read stories of retailers rationing water and products. And now… you’re feeling concerned.
Here’s my primary, first piece of advice:
What’s Covered in this Article
In order to help you figure out where you sit with it all of this, and why, I’ve composed a list of all of the most important information nuggets including:
- Why are some people panicking and others are acting like they couldn’t care less?
- Why are so many stores running low on inventory for supplies like canned or frozen food, water, and toilet paper?
- How does the food supply chain work in the US?
- When Will Stores Restock Products?!
- Should I be stocking up?
- What should I buy from stores for my 14-day emergency supply kit?
- Why is everything so expensive?
- Why can’t we buy as much of a product as we want? Why are stores rationing products?
Again, the first piece of advice is to Stay Calm.
Look, I know this can be particularly obnoxious advice at a time like this. But trust me, it’s in your best interest. Stay Calm.
Stay calm, Marchesa? That’s what you suggest?
Stay calm…when my only source of income has been or is about to “shut down?”
Stay calm…when my bills are still due, despite me not having an income stream nor cash flow?
Stay calm…when I stopped by the store after work to get some toilet paper… and there wasn’t so much as a frickin’ collection of dust particles joined together on a shelf that I could buy.
Stay calm… when my cousin Oliver looked online for TP and Amazon was selling it, 3 left in stock, 8 rolls for a reasonable… $75?
Stay calm…when every time I log in to social media I see a mix of people acting like it’s doomsday and others pretending it’s just another day in the neighborhood.
And you want me to “stay calm” when the Scrotus.. The So-Called Ruler of The United States, Trump ,and his cabinet members, have been telling us the coronavirus is nothing for months, despite experts and scientists saying otherwise, and now… he’s declared a national state of emergency.
I’M FREAKING OUT
You have genuine concerns and the answers to those concerns are either, not obvious, not plausible, or, to be honest, you might just simply not be ready to hear them yet. Trust me, I understand.
If I’m upset about something that just happened or I’m currently “going through,” and someone has the (well-intentioned) audacity to say something like, “stay calm, things could be way worse” or “everything happens for a reason,” …I secretly hope a bird flies by and poops directly into their mouth.
But, panic is not only going to make things worse, it’s going to breed more panic. And you know what else? It actually doesn’t change the external circumstances. They still exist. The coronavirus is still floating around.
But now all you’ve done is driven around frantically to 6 different stores and wound up with 20 cans of mushroom, 4 jars of marmalade, and 2 cases of water bottles (that were rationed off at the store). All of which only produced more panic because you don’t know when things will be in stock, what you should be preparing for, and how serious this thing really is.
Epidemiological threats, like the novel coronavirus, can cause a special kinds of panic, special kinds of confusion, and special kinds of disruption.
And amidst the flurry of misinformation, mixed with fact, mixed with memes aimed at being harmless but ultimately carry more subconscious and lasting psychological weight than is understood by those digesting said memes?
It can be a perfect storm for hysteria.
Hair on fire, running around, hoarding a garage full of toilet paper, and lighting anyone’s ass on fire who so much as blinks too close to you.
Here’s the truth: the coronavirus is having and will continue to have a great impact on the economy and how we lead our lives. We don’t know for how long and we don’t know to what extent. And that seems to be causing the most alarm.
So what I want to try and do is steer us back in a calm, collected, thoughtful, reasonable, and helpful direction. What I want to do is try to answer these questions and concerns in hopes of mitigating the budding fear underneath.
Why are some people panicking and others are acting like they couldn’t care less?
How we react to crises is primarily reflective of how we naturally process stress and anxiety, our coping mechanisms, our general understanding of things, who we look up to, and who we surround ourselves with.
I will resist the urge to get into the heavy cognitive and psychological stuff but all of those things play their part. So if your friend Jack is sending memes and joking about the coronavirus incessantly, meanwhile, you feel a very real sense of threat and anxiety… Don’t take it to mean that he’s some spiritual transcendent who’s tapped into the art of unreasonable acceptance. He’s not and he hasn’t. It’s simply his way of coping. And also, don’t take it personally, examining yourself and wondering if you shouldn’t be as concerned. He just processes things in a different way than you do. Not better. Not worse. Different.
However, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to being on either side of the scale (Hysteria or complacency)—both are highly problematic.
You want to aim for that sweet spot. Proper concern, level-headed reasoning, and sober clarity.
Not blatant disregard.
Not drumming up conspiracy theories as to where it came from and who created the virus.
Not buying everything in sight just because you can.
But aiming to be aware, cautious, alert, and CALM.
So as promised, I’m going to address some of the concerns I’ve heard swirling around. My hopes are that empowering you (and myself) with knowledge will help mitigate disproportionate or irrational concern, combat misinformation, and allow you the space to relax with knowing you are doing the best you can with what you have and what you know at this moment.
So, let’s begin by answering the questions we have all been wondering. Then, we’ll get into the real economic effects and walk it back some steps further.
Why are so many stores running low on inventory for supplies like canned or frozen food, water, and toilet paper?
This is a loaded question and we can answer it in a few ways but let’s start simple: it’s a supply and demand issue. Some call it panic shopping but ultimately all it is is that demand sharply and dramatically increased for these products in a short amount of time and the stores didn’t have enough supply on hand to keep up with demand. No one was prepared nor anticipated things to unfold the way they have.
That’s the simple answer.
The longer answer requires us to walk it back a few steps to understand food distribution, the national/international supply chain, and how it works. Yes, finally something I can say I have some experience in dealing with. This is what I was involved with during my long tenure at Rockstar Energy Drink. I know, if you followed my social media at all over the years, you would have assumed that all I did was dance, hide in boxes to prank people, and workout in the conference room. But no… I did slightly more than that.
Back to the empty shelves at grocery stores…
Here’s a general, oversimplified example of how most products get to your major grocery store:1
Producer → Wholesaler or Distributor (or both) → Retailer/Store
- Producer. The Producer is the starting point for this example (again, keeping things simple). They quite literally produce the product. Maybe this is a farm, maybe this is a manufacturing facility, maybe this is in the U.S, maybe this is in another country. In any regard, they produce the product that will eventually wind up on the grocery store shelves. *Oh and ps, my general understanding is that farms are the lowest on the totem pole and usually treated pretty poorly in this whole “giant conventional food distribution channel” thing. But even wealth distribution has been a thing in the US for a while. So you’re not shocked.
- Wholesaler/Distributor. Most grocery stores get their products through wholesale or bulk distributors (with specialty items often coming from manufacturers directly). In the conventional distribution model, there’s only a handful of distributors that basically do everything. Sysco being at the top. It’s actually the world’s largest broad-line food distributor — which basically means it services a wide variety of accounts with an equally wide variety of products.
- Retailer/Grocery Store. Various carriers deliver the product to retailers.
And that is a very quick, general outline of the supply chain in this case scenario.
So what’s actually happening is: the demand for products is putting pressure in a downward motion throughout the supply chain. A large group of us purchased a bunch of products… much, much more than anyone could have anticipated (producer, distributor, or retailer) so the actual inventory that sits on the shelves or in the back ran out. So the retailers are relying on their “backroom” distributors, who keep stock on hand, to deliver more. And as the distributors’ inventory runs low, then they look to the producer to kick things into gear and produce more.
And there’s A LOT of stuff I’m skipping over in between… it’s really complex with a lot of twists and turns. But I’m trying to keep this answer short.
According to Goker Aydin and Tinglong Dai, both experts in operations management and business analytics from the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, the coronavirus is having its effect on the import of supplies to retailers. And the reason this matters is because China is a huge source of finished goods and components around the globe… which includes the US. So it is possible that we could see producers (manufacturers) suspend operations until they get their supplies. Which ultimately might mean that shelves aren’t stocked with all products at all times. Which is what we are only beginning to experience now.
What else could affect operations greatly throughout the entire supply chain is lack of workers and closure of borders. According to The New York Times, Thai importers and drivers, Mongolian coal distributors, and the entire sector of travel—have all been hit hard.2
The thing is: if a supplier shuts down, and not just any supplier, but a giant, globally present, supplier shuts down… then the ripple effects extend far and deep. And if a consumer, not just any consumer, but a giant, globally present, consumer who (before Trump launched the trade war against China) purchased more than 1 quarter of America’s soybeans shuts down… then the ripple effects extend far and deep.3 And it’s not just the US, the rest of the world already is, or is going to be, impacted similarly.
The coronavirus is a big deal economically. It affects damn near everything. And it’s not something that happens and then goes away immediately after like nothing ever happened. The ramifications will be felt for a while.
So when you see giant lines and empty shelves at stores… think of the supply chain and understand that the retailers and end of the line consumers are just the reflection of the systemic pressures that are present throughout the entire chain.
According to WBUR, “Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Center for Transportation Logistics, said the current run on grocery stores is like what happens before a snowstorm — only worse. People fear the unknown, he said, and they’re preparing for what could be weeks, even months, of uncertainty.”4
When Will Stores Restock Products?!
Tough question to answer because that would mean having basic knowledge of the trajectory of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, knowing where you specifically live, where you shop, and what products you are wondering about. But we can reasonably make our guesses.
So let’s do that.
Small businesses will be hit the hardest… They almost always are during times like this. According to Tinglong Dai, the expert in business analytics and operations management that we talked about earlier:
“The impact of stockpiling depends on the size of a business—larger businesses such as Costco, Walmart, and Target tend to be more robust because of their centralized procurement strategy, better inventory control, and diverse supply bases. So this particular case may well be an opportunity for them to gain in their market shares when consumers value product availability. For smaller businesses, this could be a very vulnerable moment because stockpiling creates variability in their demand. Variability is hard for smaller businesses to absorb because they do not have the level of scale and flexibility required to maintain a reasonable level of product availability at times of demand shocks.”5
Excessive stockpiling can create this sketchy cycle, not to mention it’s unnecessary. The cycle is this:
Person goes into the store, starts stockpiling stuff in a panic. (That is, buys excessively).
Another person does the same thing.
Then many people do the same thing.
Then, other people who were mildly concerned but not in a panic, go to the store to grab a few things for their 14-day supply kit…. They see that the shelves are empty… and they…
Maybe they respond to that panic by purchasing anything and everything left, all sense leaving their bodies. Canned mushrooms? Gross, but I NEED THEM ALL. Kidney beans? Gosh dangit, fine, I’ll take 30 cans.
Oh, by the way, Slate ran an article on items that are most often left behind in grocery stores… and I have no idea how robust their evidence is for the article, other than random pictures they have but apparently on the list is: chickpea pasta.6 And all I have to say is: Y’all are sleeping on chickpea pasta. It’s delicious and if you don’t think it is… I suspect a user error on cooking it.
So anyway, panic buying breeds panic buying.
And the retailers most equipped to handle this are the big dogs, fortunately and unfortunately, respectively. So stores like Costco, Target, and Albertsons, will have a greater ability to tap into a greater variety of resources, faster.
According to Marketplace:
“Self-distribution works brilliantly, particularly in crises,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group. “Like Albertsons, like Kroger, like BJs, like Costco. They all can go from one truck a day to several trucks a day, seven days a week, and restock the stores around the clock.” Big stores have 24/7 access to inventory and their own fleet of trucks. And Ananth Iyer, who teaches operations management at Purdue University, said they have something else the little guys lack: lots of cash.”6
So the short answer to the question of when your store will be restocked is: It is being restocked all of the time. (Unless it’s a small, privately owned, business. Then, that’s relative to where it’s located and how they are operating their supplies). And the short answer to how long the panic buying will continue and if the chains can support it in a sustained way is: we don’t know.
BUT, and it’s a big booty of a but, if you are concerned, think of this:
The people who have stocked up are stocked up. They largely won’t have a need to purchase more. This will last them… and some of them it’ll last a while. So while producers work overtime to crank out supplies and distributors work with carriers to get the stores what they need, the stores should be restocked with those supplies. I can’t answer when. I’m not involved in a close enough capacity. And when I worked at Rockstar Energy Drink, I learned that there are a whole slew of variables that can affect how much of what gets where by when. Weather. Logistics. Manufacturing issues. Supply issues from an import level. Etc etc etc.
So we can’t answer that completely. But what I can say, is that I am confident in the system and us as people, a love-driven community, to figure things out, help those in need, and come together to support each other.
And I know that sounds like the most hippie, Bali, Yoga commune thing I could say right now. But it’s true.
It’s been studied time and again that during times of crises, it’s not this apocalyptic danger zone that people fear it could be. Yeah, sometimes people can act out on their fears in crappy ways. But during a genuine crisis, people actually come together to help each other altruistically.
During the hurricanes that tore through many regions in 2017, a wealth of stories emerged of neighbors and complete strangers helping others at their own expense. Creating rafts to rescue stranded families and even animals. Organizing food drives and collecting funds to help those in need. That’s that stuff that happens.
Even without this evidence, I believe that people are motivated by this intrinsic physiological and (probably primal) need to band together in times of need and help a brotha and sista out. Yes, there are some people who don’t belong in that category. But I firmly believe it’s a much smaller percentage.
So despite the grocery stores’ volatility when it comes to product supply and availability, it’s important to be hopeful, understanding of the process, CALM, and rational.
Now, I want to take a brief moment to discuss an argument I see a lot from mostly uninformed people on social media:
“You’re so dumb, don’t you see that you’re contrubting to the downfall of the economy by both panic buying and also, not going out to eat, not ordering things online, and not traveling?!”
And the reality is. You’re not dumb. You’re thoughtful. He’s ill-informed and taking it out on the wrong person. And that’s unfortunate.
But yes, both of these actions affect the economy. However, economic interest should not take precedence over public, personal, and global health concerns. And I know the two bleed into one another and can often be a complex ball of wax. But that doesn’t mean that you disregard the virus and continue to go about living your life just the way you have been all because you don’t want to contribute to the pressures placed on the economy. The solution isn’t to keep purchasing plane tickets and galavanting around.
So unless they are global economic crisis experts, don’t listen to them and hopefully they’ll keep their fly traps closed on the matter. Because they are a dangerous spread of misinformation to people who don’t know any better.
By the way, do you guys remember how lit that dis used to be? Keep your fly trap shut! I remember the first time someone said that to me in elementary school and I was just like damn… I gotta give it to him. He schooled me.
Should I be stocking up?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I think it’s a good idea to stock up regardless of anything else, especially during a time of uncertainty. Stock up with a 14-day supply of mostly food and water. The idea in my mind is to prepare for (and hopefully you are already taking steps towards) social distancing. Whether it reaches the point of total isolation or not is probably going to be up to you, regardless of what the government says.
But that’s what I’m doing. I’m staying home and limiting any non-essential social contact. At all. Period. Until I have a better understanding of the trajectory, the economy, and the overall virus itself, that’s my stance.
But I would stick with a 14-day supply of what you need (per person) in your family or whomever you live with. Resist the temptation to give into excessive panic buying. You might be putting others at a huge disadvantage. But I will say: all of this is a guess. No one really knows how much of what to buy for how long when it comes to a pandemic. But I rely on the advice of scientists and experts. And if that’s what they say to do, that’s what I’ll do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still check them and maniacally sort through their sources, scientific journals, and theories, but I will listen in the meantime nonetheless.
What should I be stocking up on?
14-Day Emergency Supply Kit
- Alcohol – Isopropyl at least 70%
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Bleach – This is probably the most important. Because once you have this, you can make your own cleaning mixtures (by mixing it with water)
- Hand Sanitizer – this will likely be out of stock. And that’s okay because you can make your own! Mix Alcohol, water, and an essential oil in a spray bottle and… Boom goes the dynamite! You’ve got yourself a sanitizing spray. (The only thing that really matters is the alcohol though, so that’s all you really need).
- Foods with a long shelf life
- Beans (canned and dry)
- Dried fruit/nuts
- Soups/Broths/Bouillon cubes
- Canned vegetables, fruit, and whatever else comes in a can that you are cool with eating for awhile.
- Frozen food: veggies, proteins.. And if your name is Rose Schroeder: ice cream.
- Cold Medicine
- Cough syrup, drops, pills, etc.
- Pain Medicine
- Tylenol, Advil
- Prescription Meds and General Medicine
- Try to get a refill on your prescriptions to last you throughout social distancing
- Vitamins and immune-boosting products
- I have multivitamins, electrolyte replenishing drinks, probiotics, and green powders.
- Protein Powder
- This may seem odd but I believe in having nutrient dense things around
- The CDC recommends having 1 gallon of water per person per day for an emergency. That might be excessive and tough to get your hands on right now (in terms of bottled water) but many of us already use filters so we can use it in combination until the stock replenishes.
- Miscellaneous toiletries:
- Floss – I know, you never do it. But you need to. And now you might have 14 days to become re-acclimated with the “floss proc.”
- Toilet paper and paper towels – Don’t go crazy you guys. Remember: 14 days.
- Sanitizing/Cleaning supplies
- Pet Food
*If you are taking this list to the store, here’s a graphic that you can screenshot or download. (Also found on my instagram here)
Why is everything so expensive?
Because of a little ol’ illegal thing called Price gouging. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of it:
“Price gouging is a term referring to when a seller increases the prices of goods, services or commodities to a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair, and is considered exploitative, potentially to an unethical extent.”7
And the California Department of Justice website states that price gouging is, in fact, illegal in California. (Though there are some loopholes… aren’t there always?). But for the most part, the big most part, it’s illegal to raise prices of goods and services during a crisis.
And it’s explicitly illegal to raise prices more than 10% after an emergency has been declared.8
As of yesterday, March 13, Trump declared a national state of emergency. So rest assured that prices shouldn’t be above the 10% increase… and if they are, while it might not help you right now, you may have ground for a strong case later on in court.
**Oh boy, I just realized again, I have to throw in a disclaimer: You know the deal: I’m not a lawyer, don’t use anything I say as legal advice, and don’t take anything I say in place of that of a professional in the field with which it will be used. I’m just a person. Just a regular person trying to empower you with knowledge so maybe you can hold unscrupulous people and companies accountable. So please, don’t come for me.
Why can’t we buy as much of a product as we want? Why are stores rationing?
So there’s enough to go around. Think of your neighbors. Think of their neighbors. Think of the fact that everyone might just be in the same boat with the 14-day emergency kit idea.
Ultimately, what we want to do is mitigate the fear, anxiety, and completely eradicate the irrational responses to those two things.
Remember, in times of crisis, what we often see from a human standpoint is: communities coming together to help one another.
This entire coronavirus pandemic is alarming and yeah.. A little unnerving. But stay calm, stay hopeful, and trust in your community. Trust in your fellow people. There may be some bad apples. There may be some selfish, scared, and uninformed people. But I firmly believe those make up a smaller percentage than the rest of us.
So remember, when you are at the store, and if you see long lines, empty shelves, and items being rationed: stay as calm as possible.
Also, if you have the emotional and mental fortitude — be kind to others and be more understanding that you may have even realized you could be.
Be optimistic while establishing new life rhythms and habits. We are all in this together.
And PS – If I have an extra bottle of something or an extra roll of toilet paper laying around (which I know I do) – and if it comes down to it: I will offer it to those in need. I don’t know how that works logistically yet and I haven’t vetted the processes… but I know that is what I will do.
And I encourage you to do the same. I saw a picture of a very old woman, shopping at a store that had empty shelves and very little product in her cart. She is the one who really could use the help. She’s my priority.
Not my own dusty, 29 year old, seemingly vibrant and reasonably healthy self.
Again stay calm, seek facts, and let’s see if we can all get on board with paying attention and being the reasonable, thoughtful, considerable humans I know we are capable of being.