It’s not because people are thinking that Armageddon is upon us, nor do they think they will be stuck at home for six months or a year. People are hoarding food because of the confusion and lack of understanding about the food supply chain.
Ask the average person where a supermarket gets its foods from, or a restaurant, and they likely couldn’t answer nor understand that there are foodservice distribution channels that differ depending on the type or size of a restaurant, school or military commissary—and especially the multiple distribution networks that serve our supermarkets—from their own warehouses, rack jobbers, specialty food or health food distributors to store door delivery and even direct from farmers. And we wonder why, as these channels are discussed, quite possibly in public view for the first time, they are panic shopping.
And then they see empty shelves that normally stock their favorite staples. Sure they hear the assurances from CEOs of food companies, grocers and our government leaders that there is plenty of food, so don’t worry. But a minute later they hear the reports of farmers plowing their crops back into the ground as it begins to spoil or dairies that are dumping milk.
It’s as if shoppers are thinking all they are hearing is Alfred E. Neuman saying, “What, me worry”?
Civil Eats reports that in the last few weeks, it has also become clear that the workers we rely on to harvest, process, stock and deliver all this food are vulnerable to the coronavirus, which means we will likely begin to see the gaps in the production system itself.
They go on to say how we are also seeing large disparities where farmers, without their usual foodservice markets, are being forced to dump milk, eggs and produce—even while there is an urgent, unprecedented need at food banks. And while there are efforts underway to address the gap between production and distribution, in between are many questions about how our food supply and distribution systems are set up—or not—to respond to disruption.
Shoppers are seeing supermarkets taking temperatures of employees (and some are testing shoppers), plexiglass shields at check stands, online reservations for times to schedule shopping, one-way aisles and markers for 6 foot distancing and, of course, workers and shoppers in gloves and masks.
Yes, shoppers are worried and some even scared to enter a grocery store. What these times demand is uniform truthful messages from the food industry. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is trying to do that on the worker side with their demands to retailers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make these "essential workers” truly fall under the essential worker guidelines.
Our industry needs to step up the truthful communication messaging to shoppers and, above all, be consistent across every grocery store in the country. The same procedures in every store, on every website and for every shopper.