Omicron Surge Empties Supermarket Shelves: Food Supply Shortages are Here to Stay

Omicron Surge Empties Supermarket Shelves: Food Supply Shortages are Here to Stay 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

This week has seen an uptick in mainstream media reports of empty supermarket shelves, as the Omicron wave rolls on.

U.S. shoppers have faced sporadic shortages of fresh food, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, since lockdowns commenced in March 2000.

Fox compares cthe urrent state of play to those that once prevailed in the Soviet Union in Shoppers ‘astounded’ by thinning grocery store supplies: ‘It’s just empty shelves’:

Empty shelves and thinning groceries and drug supplies are reminiscent of March 2020, Washington, D.C., shoppers told Fox News Digital.

“It’s like a Soviet store during 1981. It’s horrible,” one man said.

“Honestly, it looks like March of 2020, when everybody was stockpiling and the shelves were bare,” another man, Dominic, told Fox News Digital.

This is certainly hyperbole, as those who ever visited the Soviet Union – as I did in December 1983 – well know.

Here in Brooklyn, I’ve yet to see any shortages firsthand, although I’ve not myself been inside any  supermarket recently. Instead, I’ve relied on deliveries from my local supermarket,  Lincoln Market, from which I ordered most recently on Tuesday,. My order included  plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and some dairy.  Just before Christmas, I’d ordered meat from my butcher , some of which remains stockpiled in my freezer, and cheese from Murray’s Cheese.

I occasionally cross the street to good specialty food shop. It also delivers but I usually order on-line and pick up the food myself, enmasked with an N95. I can’t resist their cookies: big, but not too big, and not too sweet. When I’m very busy or unusually lazy or I just fancy a change,  a couple of restaurants also supply reasonably-priced take-away.

I try to eat local food and during the clement months, most of our fruit and vegetables come via the New York City Greenmarket system. I also shop at a nearby greengrocer that offers a better selection, at lower prices, than the supermarket. But a combination of wishing to avoid exposure to the virus and some (minor) health issues have left me relying on grocery deliveries.

I’m lucky in that I’ve not seeing widely-reported supermarket shortages firsthand. CNN reports on the general problem in Here’s why grocery stores are struggling to stock their empty shelves. Omicron’s the immediate proximate cause of these shortages, not only due to the toll it’s taking on grocery store employees, but also as a result of its related impact on transportation and other food logistics. Per CNN:

As the highly contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus continues to sicken workers, it’s creating staffing shortages for critical functions like transportation and logistics, which in turn are affecting delivery of products and restocking of store shelves across the country.

Albertsons’ CEO Vivek Sankaran acknowledged that products are in tight supply during the company’s earnings call with analysts Tuesday.

“I think as a business, we’ve all learned to manage it. We’ve all learned to make sure that the stores are still very presentable, give the consumers as much choice as we can get,” Sankaran said during the call.

Even so, he added, Omicron has put “a bit of a dent” on efforts to improve supply chain gaps. “We would expect more supply challenges over the next four to six weeks,” Sankaran said. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Supermarket labor issues predated the rise of Omicron and are not likely to ease any time soon. Over to CNN:

Grocery stores are operating with less than their normal workforces, according to the National Grocers Association, and many of its members have less than 50% of their normal workforce.

“While there is plenty of food in the supply chain, we anticipate consumers will continue to experience sporadic disruptions in certain product categories as we have seen over the past year and half due to the continued supply and labor challenges,” said Greg Ferrara, the group’s president and CEO.

In fact, labor shortages continue to pressure all areas of the food industry, said Phil Lempert, an industry analyst and editor of SuperMarketGuru.com.

“From farms to food makers to grocery stores, it’s across the board,” said Lempert. “During the pandemic, these operations have had to implement social distancing protocols and they’re not really built for that and it has impacted production.”

And as the pandemic continues, many food industry workers are opting not to return to their low-wage jobs at all. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

So, no one should expect the supermarket industry’s labor woes to improve anytime assign – especially as it looks like the obvious solution – tiger wages – is not on the cards.

In addition to labor issues, transportation difficulties have also affected food supplies (and some of these, too, are at root labor issues as well). According to CNN:

An ongoing shortage of truckers continues to slow down the supply chain and the ability of grocery stores to replenish their shelves quickly.

“The trucking industry has an aging workforce on top of a shortage,” Lempert said. “It’s really been a problem for the last several years.

Layered atop widespread domestic transportation issues is the ongoing record-high level of congestion at the nation’s ports. “Both of these challenges are working in tandem to create shortages,” he said.

Weather is also a concern, both seasonal and longer-term trends arising  out of climate change. Over to CNN:

Much of the Midwest and Northeast has recently been grappling with severe weather and hazardous commuting conditions. Not only are people stocking up on more groceries, that level of high demand coupled with transportation challenges is making it more difficult to transport goods in inclement weather, thus resulting in more shortages, said Lempert.

Not to mention climate change, which is an ongoing serious and longer term threat to food supply. “Fires and droughts are damaging crops such as wheat, corn and soybean in the US and coffee crops in Brazil,” he said. “We can’t ignore it.”

CNN recognizes that the pandemic has changed personal eating habits, with more people eschewing restaurants in favour of preparing food and eating at home. The extent to which this trend will continue depends on how quickly and to what degree the pandemic is brought under control. According to CNN:

More and more of us have taken to cooking and eating at home through the pandemic that’s contributing to the grocery supply crunch, too, said Lempert.

“We don’t want to keep eating the same thing and are trying to vary home cooking. As we do that, we’re buying even more food products,” he said. The shortages have also made buying food increasingly more expensive going into 2022.

Grocery stores certainly are aware of the empty shelves, Lempert said, and they are trying to mitigate panic buying, which only worsens it the situation.

One strategy: Fanning out products. They’re doing this by putting out both limited varieties and limited quantities of each product in an attempt to prevent hoarding and stretch out their supplies between deliveries.
“Pre-pandemic you might have seen five different varieties of milk across the front row and 10 cartons deep. Now it will be five across and maybe two rows deep,” said Lempert.

In this post, I’ve relied on summarizing CNN’s details. Yet I could easily instead have relied on different sources to elicit similar facts. Major outlets are more or less reporting the same thing, nationwide: Fox (as above); Bloomberg: Can’t Find Pasta or Cat Food? Empty Store Shelves Are Here to Stay; USA Today: Grocery stores still have empty shelves amid supply chain disruptions, omicron and winter storms; or ABC News: Here’s why grocery stores are struggling to stock their empty shelves.

Readers: what are you seeing? Are food supply issues getting better or worse?

What Is to Be Done?

My takeaway? Just as I can’t see my way clear to any end to this pandemic, food security issues are here to stay for the foreseeable future. What that means is that I’ll keep our larder well-stocked with non-perishables, and buy available fresh food. I’ll continue to err on the side of laying in too much rather than too little food and when I miscalculate, I’ll freeze or preserve the surplus.

Today, NYC is seeing some of its coldest temperatures of the year: -2 C (29F). This afternoon, I think I’ll bake some cookies. Probably something simple – perhaps peanut butter?- and also some homemade fig newtons, which are my husband’s favorite. Coffee and fresh-baked cookies will provide a welcome distraction.

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