The pandemic changed the food supply chain

It’s become vital to support local producers or grow your own food

This morning, my wife and I ate brunch at home. Nothing fancy, just some bacon and eggs. Tonight, we’ll have pork chops and salad. If you were to guess how far each of these items travelled to arrive at my plate, you would probably assume they all came from the same grocery store and that each of those ingredients came from a reasonably close source: hopefully Alberta, probably Canada, and definitely North America. 

The food that ends up in supermarkets comes from locations with the cheapest production and shipping costs. If the store you visit is a large chain, it doesn’t make financial sense to have different tomato suppliers for each timezone. They buy from an organization that can reliably produce ripe, red tomatoes cheaply and in large quantities. If an organization has this kind of capacity, they aren’t just selling to one supermarket. To complicate things even more, tomatoes don’t grow in our winter. 

In order to maximize cost effectiveness, supermarkets must balance shipping costs with production availability. For this reason, staying with the tomato example, Superstore will not say where their tomatoes come from. The official response is that due to the nature of tomatoes, “the country of origin can vary in order to maintain availability.” The statement goes on to say that at any time, they may source from Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Spain, Israel, Jamaica, Mexico, Netherlands, United States or Vietnam.

I was looking at buying a used car recently, and my father offered the following advice: “More moving parts means more things that can break.” It’s true, and that’s why we have warranties, but there are no warranties on supply and demand. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for food has changed. Demand for products like flour and yeast have spiked. Other products faced a decrease in demand. For example, Canadian Dairy Farmers reportedly dumped tankers of milk due to oversupply. Like any producer of goods, companies aim to have supply roughly meet demand. However, a pandemic comes with drastic changes in consumer behaviour. Farmers were dumping milk primarily because of reduced demand resulting from restaurant closures. There are so many moving parts involved in production that dairy farmers can’t just flip a switch and make less milk to meet the new demand levels. They have staff, suppliers, and cows to contend with. They also have to deal with the companies they use to ship their products. 

Making less milk is akin to turning off the garden hose, so that water continues to rush through the pipeline, wasted. But companies must turn off the proverbial hose. The longer the lockdowns continue, the more imperative it is that supply be adjusted to match demand.

There is also a very real possibility of a widespread food shortage later this year. Just like the supply generation that can’t be switched off, it can’t be switched on either. Plus there is the possibility that an early shortage of a product could spike demand and result in panic-buying. Remember, it took almost six weeks for stores to restock toilet paper after irrational panic-buying occurred in the early days of the pandemic. As of the writing of this article in mid-May, most stores still don’t have flour.

Returning to our meals of bacon and eggs and pork chops and salad, all of our meat came from a small family farm just outside the city, hand-delivered with a smile. Since her demand is small, she is able to pivot very quickly to raise or lower supply to meet demand. There are less moving parts, a shorter chain, a steadier supply. As for fruit and vegetables, we’ve only just planted our garden, so we’ll have to wait before we can wander into our backyard and pluck a few tomatoes. Until then, we have to rely on supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Supporting local food suppliers and buying directly from the farm ensures a steady food supply for my family.


Featured Image: The pandemic has changed demand for certain products. | Pixabay

Mark Parsons

Born and raised in Edmonton, Mark is a HR professional, writer, artist, and entrepreneur. He is also the founder of Multi Menu Edmonton, a local company that brings the pet store to your door.

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