Food Supply Chain Workers Play Heroic Role During Covid-19 Outbreak

Stephen DeAngelis

March 24, 2020

As a result of panic buying, the Covid-19 outbreak stripped store shelves of essential items. Despite repeated assurances from politicians and supply chain professionals that sufficient goods were in the supply chain, store shelves emptied as fast as they could be restocked. “If there’s one image that captures the panic seeping through the United States,” wrote Michael Corkery (@mcorkery5) and Sapna Maheshwari (@sapna), “it might be the empty store shelves where toilet paper usually sits.”[1] Toilet paper wasn’t the only essential involved in panic buying, food and bottled water were also emptied from store shelves. “You wouldn’t know it from the bare grocery store shelves across the country,” Jacob Bunge (@jacobbunge) and Jesse Newman (@jessenewman13) write, “but America has plenty of food. The challenge is getting it from the farm to your table.”[2] Like most calamities, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of logistics to our economic and personal well-being. Bunge and Newman note, “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.”


The food supply chain


The reason companies are struggling to restock store shelves is that consumers are buying goods faster than the supply chain can get products to the stores. PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff (@JudyWoodruff) stated, “Many Americans have encountered long lines and empty shelves at grocery stores recently. But the problem is not one of supply; rather, stores say that most shortages are temporary and due strictly to an unprecedented surge in buying, as panicked consumers rushed to stock up on items they feared might become scarce.”[3] It’s an enormous logistics challenge. “America is a big place,” writes Mike Pomranz (@pomranz). “But according to a study out of the University of Illinois, even if you have never traveled around the United States, the food you eat (or at least elements of it) certainly has.”[4] He reports, “A team from the University of Illinois looked at the 9.5 million links connecting 3,142 counties in America’s food supply chain.” Because of the distances involved, it takes time to drive from one place to another across such a large country. It often takes even longer to get food from international locations. Steve Banker (@steve_scm), Vice President of Supply Chain Services at ARC Advisory Group, observes, “The global food supply chain is complex, vast, and vital to human existence. Not surprisingly, when there are disruptions to the food supply chain, it makes major headlines.”[5]


Food supply chain workers’ heroic efforts


While healthcare professionals are rightfully garnering accolades for their heroic efforts to fight the Covid-19 virus and care for its victims, workers in the food supply chain are also providing heroic service to the country. Crops still need to be planted and harvested. Products still need to be processed and prepared for sale. Packaged goods still need to be transported to stores. And stores need to remain open to sell those products.


On the farm. Even though international travel has mostly been halted, America relies on seasonal workers to harvest it crops. Jessica Donati (@jessdonati) and Alicia A. Caldwell (@acaldwellwsj) report, “Seasonal workers account for as much as 10% of the workforce for farmers. Many other industries such as fisheries and resorts — including President Trump’s golf and beach clubs — also rely on low-cost labor from Mexico.”[6] Despite earlier warnings from the State Department that seasonal workers might not be allowed into the country, senior leaders changed their minds and continued to process the necessary visas to allow seasonal workers into the country. According to Donati and Caldwell, “Farmers warned the suspension could threaten their livelihoods.” We should be grateful seasonal workers are willing to risk infection as they travel and work while most of us are sheltered in our homes. Chris Schulte, an immigration lawyer, told Donati and Caldwell, “The inability to get workers is a huge threat. There is no good time for it, but it couldn’t come at a worse time for agriculture. This is a maximum [visa] filing period for agriculture.”


In the plant. Bunge and Newman report, “To meet demand, processing plants are churning out more supermarket-ready packs of chicken breasts, pork chops and salad greens while companies build volunteer teams to deploy across facilities if workers fall ill. Companies’ plans include cross-training employees to do various tasks; monitoring possible disruptions to the H-2A visa program used to import agricultural workers; and talking with hospitals and churches about setting up child-care options for workers if schools close.” Bunge and Newman highlight the fact that workers in the food industry have to cope with the same concerns others are dealing with (like caring for children no longer in school) while maintaining a full work schedule and risking infection themselves.


On the road. Bunge and Newman report, “U.S. highway-safety regulators suspended rules limiting daily driving hours for truckers moving food, medical equipment and other critical goods, which some food companies had requested.” They noted logistics providers are experiencing a 20% to 50% uptick in business. Truckers have often been called road warriors and the term has never been more applicable. But it’s not just truckers experiencing greater workloads. People working in warehouses and on shipping docks are also being called on to provide increased service.


At the supermarket. PBS News Hour’s Amna Nawaz interviewed Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association. During that interview, he stated, “Here’s the good thing about our food supply in the United States. For the most part, most of the food is produced domestically, and even regionally and locally. So, we have a very strong supply chain. That supply chain has a lot of redundancies in place. And so we feel very confident about that. We have also been working with the government, both federal, state and local, to ensure that grocery stores — food manufacturers are considered what we call tier one responders. So they’re able to be essential workers. And we can get them to our plants, to our stores, and make sure the product is getting through to consumers.”[7] Like other professionals in the food supply chain, supermarket employees must deal with consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak while providing a vital service to the public.


Concluding thoughts


Ferrara notes, “Our supply chain is experiencing a truly unprecedented event with this crisis. We have never seen levels like this across the United States. And that’s actually impacting supply chains. So, when you go into a store, if you see empty shelves, it’s taking us a while to get the product flowing through supply chain back to the stores. But it is coming. It is coming through our warehouses. It coming to the stores. There is plenty of supply in the supply chain. We just need time to catch up.” Concerning food supply chain professionals, Christina Capatides (@capattack) writes, “These are the people keeping our streets clean and our stores shelves stocked — an outward sign that the American supply chain is still intact, and key players in keeping an already-stressed population calm. They are putting in long hours away from their families and risking exposure to coronavirus — all because, heralded or not, they are very much essential.”[8] Without the heroic efforts of everyone in the food supply chain, the Covid-19 pandemic would be an even more severe crisis.


[1] Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari, “Is There Really a Toilet Paper Shortage?,” The New York Times, 13 March 2020.
[2] Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman, “Coronavirus-Era Food Supply: America Has a Lot. Moving It Is Tricky.The Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2020.
[3] Judy Woodruff, “Despite empty store shelves, grocery association says supply chain ‘very strong’,” PBS News Hour, 19 March 2020.
[4] Mike Pomranz, “What Really Unites Americans? Our Food Supply,” Food & Wine, 30 October 2019.
[5] Steve Banker, “The Global Food Supply Chain Faces Daunting Challenges in the Coming Decades, Forbes, 10 October 2019.
[6] Jessica Donati and Alicia A. Caldwell, “U.S. Keeps Processing Seasonal Worker Visas After Warning From Farmers,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2020.
[7] Woodruff, op. cit.
[8] Christina Capatides, “Truck drivers, grocery store workers and more unsung heroes of the coronavirus pandemic,” CBS News, 20 March 2020.