When the Milk Aisle Becomes a Minefield

Hospital-style shopping cart

by Kinsey Grant

Yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all “nonessential” businesses to institute mandatory work from home for 100% of their workforces. That means everyone from CPAs to “ nyc | content creators” will be joining the fun of no-pants all-hands.

But who counts as essential? The heroes working in healthcare, public transportation, and grocery stores—further evidence that the battlegrounds in the fight against this pandemic are first the hospitals…then the frozen food aisles.

Big picture: While those who’ve ransacked grocery stores can go home to their 124-pack of Charmin, the 2+ million Americans working in supermarkets must report to the frontlines daily. And the hardest part of their jobs aside from staying healthy while manning a revolving door of strangers? Keeping shelves stocked.

Read this before you buy that 12th can of beans

Empty aisles might make it seem like there’s a food shortage in the U.S. But America’s meat, vegetable, and pantry staples providers will be the first to tell you there isn’t—there’s just a logistics crunch.

Because COVID-19 took us by surprise. While the grocery supply chain is carefully calibrated to stock stores with just enough of what they need, not even Amazon’s algorithms could predict this unprecedented fear-fueled buying.

  • “We do not see a supply shock in the sense of the availability,” said one UN economist to Bloomberg. “But there could be a supply shock in terms of logistics, not being able to move it from point A to point B.”

The good news? Producers are already rejiggering strategies to solve for eggs.

  • Plants that once made items exclusively for (now-mostly closed) restaurants and school cafeterias have pivoted to supply grocery stores.
  • Many producers are rerouting trucking fleets, keeping plants open overtime and on weekends, and hiring temp workers.

Looking ahead…some retailers expect panic-buying to come in waves. Now that suppliers and grocers better understand how we’re mainlining packaged chicken breasts, they might be able to keep pace the next time around.

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