Will We Run Out of Food Due to COVID-19? What to Know About Grocery Stores and Food Supplies Right Now

updated Mar 29, 2020
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Credit: Kunal Mehta

As we try to settle into this new normal and figure out new routines and new ways of doing what used to be the most ordinary of tasks, there are still a lot of questions around grocery shopping. And as this health crisis develops, we’re right there with you, addressing your concerns, helping to keep you informed.

Lately, we’ve noticed the conversation shift from questions about safety — like whether you’re likely to catch the virus during one trip to the grocery store and if it’s okay to buy fresh produce — to questions about food supply. Specifically: Will grocery stores close? and Will there be a nationwide food shortage? Here’s what we know.

Will grocery stores close because of COVID-19?

You may have noticed that some grocery stores near you now have shorter or different hours — and that’s so that staffers can make sure proper disinfecting methods are taking place — but the short answer is no: Most grocery stores are not going to close. Grocery stores are considered “essential critical infrastructure” by the United States government, along with healthcare services and pharmaceutical services. (For the full list, click here.) While we are encouraged to shelter-in-place as much as possible, we are still permitted to leave the house to pick up items like food, beverages, and prescriptions.

Temporary closures will happen, however” says Brandon Hernandez, a supply chain management expert at Whole Brain Consulting. “In those cases of Trader Joe’s employees in NYC testing positive, they’re closing to ease the pressure on their crew, do top-down sanitations, and then you’ll see business as usual.” Grocery stores are taking precautions, but for the most part, “the intent is to only be out for a week for a deep clean.”

Will we run out of food because of COVID-19?

The FDA says this: “There are no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the United States and no widespread disruptions have been reported in the supply chain.”

Hernandez agrees, emphasizing that empty shelves are not due to food availability but rather an overwhelming influx of shoppers purchasing more than usual (in the same way they might before an impending snowstorm). “This is not a supply chain issue — the food is there. This is a demand issue. People are stockpiling and panic-buying because there is this misconception that shelter-in-place means we cannot leave the house for any reason. That’s when people take to hoarding.”

Related: Stocking Up Is Impossible When You Lack Enough for Today: Food Banks Struggle as Coronavirus Crisis Intensifies

“In times of crisis, and this is a crisis, people resort to buying what is stable and what they know. Beans, rice, pastas — things that have a long shelf life, are easy to make, and that you can buy in large quantities at a cheap price.”

There is a strain, Hernandez says, on the grocery store workers (please be nice to them!) and on the trucking industry, which gets our food from point A to point B. “Trucks are being pulled in a thousand directions. These truck drivers fall into the same category as doctors, nurses, and grocery store workers on the front lines.”

Echoing Hernandez’s points, a recent NYT article, “There Is Plenty of Food in the Country,” dispels the concerns, including insights from countless experts across the food industry (including the chief executive of the North American Meat Institute, and the chief operating officer of Costco) who assert that warehouses are stocked and our food system is business as usual.

A final note from Hernandez regarding grocery shopping in the time of COVID-19: “We need to have calm, cool, collected heads — grocery stores are still going to be open tomorrow. We need to give shelf stockers, bag checkers, and everyone who is trying to do their jobs room to do their jobs.”