Cooperation, Not Fear, Keeps the Food Supply Chain Secure

Empty store shelves and long lines may fuel Americans’ anxieties, but rest assured: Food supply chains in the United States remain strong in the crisis. Millions of farmers, packers, shippers, distributors, stockers, and salesclerks are working together, around the clock, to keep food on store shelves and Americans fed and healthy. Our food supply chains will remain strong if policymakers cooperate with companies, if they consider buyers’ needs, and if we keep our neighbors in mind.

Every day Covid-19 is presenting new challenges to the food supply chain, and some localities are acting fast. Washington, D.C. has granted exemptions for oversized vehicles and drivers transporting emergency relief to, through, and from any part of the District. Chicago, like many other major municipalities, has teamed up with its state retail merchant association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), to ensure residents’ access to grocery stores and pharmacies, and called on all Chicagoans to keep normal shopping routines and avoid stockpiling. The Department of Homeland Security has deemed food and agriculture sector employees “critical infrastructure workers,” issuing guidance to minimize work interruptions during the pandemic. Likewise, FEMA has relaunched a 24/7 operation (NBEOC@fema.dhs.gov) to resolve challenges to supply-chain continuity.

Food supply chains in the United States remain strong in the crisis.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted March 18, helps federal feeding programs pivot to meet families’ new needs. Under the act, states can allow shoppers to substitute foods under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). For example, if WIC-eligible bread is sold out, mothers can purchase comparable products instead. Still, a nation-wide waiver to allow for such replacements would help retailers and customers both. The act also allows states to request waivers to plus-up Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households to the maximum allotment during the crisis. The injection of additional benefits will help families keep food on the table, and grocers stand ready to serve all customers, no matter how they pay. States could help forestall demand spikes by spreading out the distribution of additional benefits across the month.

The strength of our food supply chains also depends on a steady supply of labor from Mexico and Canada. The State Department recently exempted seasonal agricultural workers in Mexico from visa restrictions to ensure that crops are harvested and fruit is picked. As “critical infrastructure workers,” grocery store employees can cross our northern and southern borders even as transit is restricted to combat the crisis.

Finally, as consumers, we have a critical role to play: Don’t panic. Overstocking food may be a natural response to stay-at-home guidance, but it’s these very spikes in demand—not shortages of supply—that lead to empty shelves and long lines. So, shop normally. Stock your pantry with one- or two-weeks’ worth of shelf-stable food. If you see occasional shortages, give stores time to re-stock and check back in a few days. And when you’re shopping, keep your neighbors in mind, especially those who rely on WIC and SNAP benefits. They can’t afford to stock up for several weeks at once, so leave enough on the shelf for them, too.

As consumers, we have a critical role to play: Don’t panic.

Fear can fill its own prophesies. During the 2008 food-price crisis, fearful of potential rice shortages, some countries imposed export bans and other trade restrictions, though there was no actual shortage. The price of rice doubled in six months. Today, when fearful consumers over-buy, shelves empty.

The specter of food insecurity—among families, students, and the elderly who were food insecure before coronavirus as well as the newly unemployed—is daunting. In this crisis, strong public-private cooperation, smart policy responses, and prudent consumer behavior are essential. Cooperation, not fear, keeps us secure.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Leslie Sarasin is president and CEO of Food Marketing Institute – The Food Industry Association in Arlington, V.A.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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