Is there really a food shortage out there? No, but there are temporary shortages of some things – here is why

Olivia Nalder
Times Correspondent


Last Friday, two Bonanza trucks with food shipments originally slated for Reno casinos and restaurants, unloaded a colorful array of produce into a makeshift food stand under the fuel pump awning at the old truck stop in Walker. Cars streamed through the line for nearly four hours, filled with anxious, but mostly cheerful, people waiting to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and hopefully a small dose of security - at cost - from masked and gloved cashiers. Meanwhile, shelves in several area grocery stores stood bare of staples, underlining the nation’s current food distribution problem due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are food shortages our new norm?

Though empty shelves and masked supermarket employees may summon up apocalyptic visions, industry experts want to quell the perception that scarily sparse shelves at the grocery store reflect a suffering food supply chain.

“There is no food shortage,” said Vons spokesperson Melissa Hill. “Warehouses still have inventory. We are still getting deliveries every day. We are still stocking shelves every day.”

Hill also noted that although customers may notice the absence of their favorite brand of pasta sauce on the shelf, for instance, Vons is working hard to ensure that each food category has at least one brand available, though variety will fluctuate as stores scramble to order and restock the most in-demand products first.

Much of the apparent grocery shortage is merely an illusion created by temporarily accelerated purchasing. People are not suddenly eating more, but they are shopping more. Not even the isolated Eastern Sierra, well-acquainted with being stuck at home and forced to make infrequent trips to the store, has escaped the growing herd psychology phenomenon of panic buying.

Perhaps nothing is quite as terrifying as running out of food, and, nothing is quite as comforting in a time of crisis as a well-stocked cupboard. It is no surprise then, that customers have swarmed grocery stores since the outbreak of COVID-19, filling carts with paper goods and pantry items. Shopping, and even hoarding, escalated as it became clear the country was headed for stay at home measures, and gradually, items like canned goods, bread, cheese and meat have been harder to come by. As shoppers see more and more empty shelves, the perception of scarcity intensifies, and many feel an even greater urgency to stock up, creating a vicious cycle of low inventory.

“Panic buying and hoarding food are unfortunate and unnecessary reactions,” said professor of economics at Cerro Coso College, Norman Stephan. “We have not been informed of any disruption of the food supply, only that some people are buying all the available goods, such as meat and toilet paper, which magnifies the panic and causes a temporary shortage. The distribution of food continues and shelves are getting restocked; if buyers make their normal purchases, our food supply should not be interrupted. Even with the ‘shelter in place’ orders, food distribution continues, and people are allowed to shop.”

Store management and economists agree that panic-buying and stockpiling is one of our worst enemies right now.

“If people continue to make panic purchases, there could be a temporary shortage until the items can be delivered and stocked,” Stephan said. “Panic buying only magnifies fear.”

Social distancing measures seem to be beginning to help slow the rate with which items are flying off the shelves. One regional recommendation asks that individuals reduce their trips to the grocery store to once per week or less. Not only could this help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it could also allow stores a little more time to restock shelves and build up their inventory again. In addition to that recommendation, individual stores are placing limits on how many shoppers will be allowed in the store at any given time. 

Vons also recently placed limits on the number of certain items each customer can purchase per visit. Affected categories include milk, canned goods, eggs and paper goods. Hill said that the purchase limits are already having their desired effect, and shelves are slowly starting to look a little more normal. She noted that we may continue to see spot shortages on specific items though as demand fluctuates.

One category of inventory expected to have a much slower rebound is masks, gloves and sanitization products, which are being funneled to healthcare providers where they are most needed at this point in time. Representatives from both Vons and Grocery Outlet said they have no estimation of when these specific items will be fully restocked.

At the same time we are experiencing empty grocery store shelves, we are also seeing an overwhelming amount of potential waste in the form of huge restaurant, casino, and cruise ship orders. While staples like rice and beans are fleeing the grocers' shelves almost as quickly as they land, specialty produce and meat is bottlenecked in the hospitality food supply chain. Some of these suppliers, like the Bonanza produce truck, are finding novel ways to cut losses and get food where it is needed most before it spoils. 

Though grocery stores and hospitality vendors often do not share contracts with the same suppliers, Hill said that Vons is also turning to “non-traditional supply methods,” like ordering from hospitality suppliers in an effort to bolster their inventory on a regional level. She warned that it will take time for the food distribution structure to adjust, but that it is well on its way.

Despite all the uncertainty, there is consensus on one thing right now: our country has all the food we need. It might not be overflowing the shelves at our local grocery stores. Maybe it is in a warehouse. Maybe it is on a delivery truck. But it is available and waiting to be properly distributed and restocked. The system will need a bit of time to shift gears, but this is not a true supply chain disruption we are facing at the moment. There are no true shortages on any products yet. People will start shopping their full pantries more and the grocery stores less. Yes, we may see more waves of spot shortages on certain items as the COVID-19 landscape changes, but Hill says she is confident inventory will eventually balance out. That is a better scenario than producers expanding production to unmerited output to answer what is essentially a fake demand which will wane. Hill encourages consumers to be patient during the adjustment period.

In addition to apparent food shortages, some consumers fear that as certain high-demand products become more scarce, supply and demand will drive the prices up prohibitively. However, there are legal checks and balances in play that prevent this scenario from happening. According to the California Department of Justice, the recent declaration of a State of Emergency enables California to employ various protective measures, like anti-price gouging statutes. These laws prevent price-hikes on necessities like emergency supplies - and food and drink. No individual or business is allowed to exceed a ten percent increase on essential consumer goods and services.

Though the food supply prognosis seems encouraging, food shortages are a real and palpable problem encountered by some individuals during this time, especially those who may be facing a loss of job security. County-wide programs are scrambling to mobilize resources for these people. Organizations like IMACA are ramping up to meet this need, now making deliveries to all locations every two weeks. ). Mammoth Lakes Tourism has partnered with US Foods to provide a drive-through food bank for the community free of charge (see story on page 3).

This is also a time where we are seeing neighbors and friends rise to the occasion. Social media groups and pages are springing up across the county, with residents offering to pick up food and supplies for others on their Costco runs, or offering to pick up subscriptions and make deliveries to elderly neighbors, or even baking and delivering homemade bread to anyone who needs it. (resources in text box?? Do you want to include any FB groups/resources?)

We are experiencing a season of uncertainty. We don't know what the future holds in light of the COVID-19 crisis. However, this is also a time of hope, resourcefulness and unprecedented local and nationwide collaboration. Fear is rampant on many levels, but where one's next meal will come from is not a fear we need face now in a nation with such a robust food supply chain and in a community with such compassionate cooperation.



• Vons now places an employee at the front of the store to regulate how many people are allowed in if the aisles are near social distancing capacity.

• Many stores have also introduced exclusive shopping hours for seniors and other at-risk individuals to ensure they can obtain the items they need. These individuals may shop each morning at Vons, Monday-Friday, 7-9 a.m. 

• Grocery Outlet recommends at-risk customers shop first thing in the morning, when traffic is at its lowest and when the store has just undergone its deep-clean. 

• Both stores wanted to assure the public that the aisles and checkout lanes are sanitized throughout the day and that the entire store is thoroughly sanitized overnight. Reduced store hours allow for the extra cleaning.

• Smaller stores throughout the Eastern Sierra are also making adjustments. Some have closed their doors in favor of making home-deliveries. Others, like the Bridgeport General Store, have switched over completely to telephone orders and curbside pick-up, but have increased stock of produce and other high-demand products in their isolated community, helping residents remain closer to home, rather than driving to Carson City or farther in an effort to track down essential food items.