Food Supply Shortages: Tips for Consumers

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Have you been frustrated with empty store shelves, lack of options, or limits on buying quantity? As Americans, we were so accustomed to having a wide array of product choices every time we walked into a store, that seeing empty shelves was more than just a little unnerving.

For me, I found the quantity limit on fresh meats to be the most challenging. Since I love all fruits and vegetables, it was easy to find substitutions if the ones I planned to buy were not available. I was even willing to do without items if my favorite brands were out of stock. However, when I could purchase only one package of the same kind of meat, I’ll admit I had to reach into my bag of tricks for other options. The most obvious solution was to simply substitute meat with other high-protein foods such as beans, nuts, and eggs. I also pulled out recipes that helped me stretch the amount of fresh meat I had available. One of the easiest meats to stretch is ground beef or turkey and one of the best ingredients to substitute or add is mushrooms. Mushrooms offer a similar texture as meat and add bulk, flavor, and nutrition. Some of my favorite recipes come from NC State Extension’s “Med Instead of Meds” program. I hope you’ll try the Mushroom Beef Tacos or the Mushroom Beef Burgers. If you are interested in a plant-based version, the Mushroom Almond Burger is amazing!

As people continue to do their weekly grocery shopping, many wonder how the pandemic will affect future food supply. There are many reasons for food shortages during a crisis. Just as weather can destroy crops and create gaps in food supply, any unforeseen circumstance can send a ripple effect throughout the food supply chain. Agriculture and food production are labor-intensive industries, often done in close contact with other people. This is especially true for the meat processing industry which employs large numbers of people who work in close proximity to each other. During the current crisis, social distancing practices slowed our ability to harvest, process, and transport food in an efficient manner. In addition, there was a great deal of anxiety about the “unknown” at the onset of the pandemic. This led to panic buying and hoarding, adding further to the uncertainty and stress on the food system.

The food supply is already beginning to return to normal, but there will still be a few temporary gaps as we move forward. Consumers are not likely to see permanent changes in food availability, but there will be significant changes to the food industry in general. Modifications are being made at every point in the food system from production and processing to distribution and retail markets. There will be more focus on reducing food waste, employee safety on farms and in production plants, and logistics for storage and transportation.

As we go through what we hope is a recovery period from the pandemic, grocery shopping will require us to continue being patient and using smart strategies for storage and cooking to make the most of our food purchases. Be assured, your favorite products will return to shelves soon.