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Bread And Butter: Food Shortages, Panic Buying And Preparedness

Rolls of toilet paper stacked on end.

Remember way back in March of 2020, when we were awkwardly trying on masks for the first time, cautiously edging into grocery stores and desperately searching empty shells for hazelnut spread and yeast? 

For a month or more certain foods like flour, peanut butter, canned soup and powdered milk were mostly unavailable. And on the odd occasion, when a store got in a shipment, it turned into an every person for themselves situation, something akin to the dessert table at a potluck dinner. 

Government officials at the time worked to reassure Americans that there was no shortage of food, despite the Coronavirus. And yet at my local grocery store, there was a very real lack of chocolate chips. 

Now I wonder what the heck happened? Our nation's food distribution system in normal times is a marvel of efficiency, delivering huge quantities of food from field or factory to consumers. But because businesses generally don't want the expense of maintaining big warehouse facilities filled with backup hazelnut spread, the system relies on predictability.

Stores know, on average, how much of a product consumers want to buy and have a system in place where just enough food is delivered to store shelves on a regular basis. But this year, the averages got thrown out the window and the supply chain struggled to adapt. 

One factor was panic buying. When the reality of a pandemic began to set in, people wanted to prepare and stocked up on things like toilet paper and pasta. This blew the averages out of the water and the threat of empty shelves caused people to snatch up even more of any available product. 

Panic buying is rooted in fear of the unknown, experts say. People believe that a dramatic event warrants a dramatic response. I know I felt it. Even though in this case, the best response was something as mundane as washing your hands.

This type of behavior can make shortages worse. Irrational stockpiling can also lead to price gouging, said Steven Taylor, author of the “Psychology of Pandemics.” If the price of a roll of toilet paper is tripled, that is seen as a more scarce commodity, which can lead to anxiety and further buying. 

The pandemic caused an entirely different set of problems on other fronts: a spike in the number of people who couldn't afford groceries and a glut of food where it wasn't needed. 

In March, some of the biggest food destinations temporarily shut down. Chain restaurants, schools and workplace cafeterias. Dairy farmers were forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk but no one would buy. Vegetable growers in Florida abandoned harvest ready fields of tomatoes, yellow squash and cucumbers because they couldn't pay for the labor of harvest. 

Meanwhile, food banks and pantries had trouble supplying enough food to people who needed it, including millions of children who are no longer getting free meals at school. Things are more or less adjusted now. We're beginning to process what happened and trying to figure out what to do with 50 pounds of whole wheat flour stored in our basements. Or is that just me? 

Experts say there is a better way to prepare for future emergencies. First, prepare a little every day. It's so easy to psychologically hunker down into one of the extremes, either apocalyptic gloom or complete denial. But neither of these is our reality. 

Instead of freaking out with dark scenarios or doing nothing, create a realistic plan based on accurate information and practical storage. If we do this, it's also worth keeping everyone else's needs in mind. Stock up on what you and your family need but avoid the urge to hoard. Your actions affect others in the community, and ultimately end up with a lot of waste. 

It's also worth noting that as much as quality sources of food are important. Quality sources of information are also vital for avoiding mistakes. If your news puts a premium on the sensational, or makes you feel panicky on a regular basis, consider finding a more reliable source. Anxiety needs to be acknowledged and managed experts say not that we are expecting another pandemic in the near future. But 2020 has a few weeks left to throw at us so you never know.