In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people swarmed to the stores to stock up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. As people realized that they may be stuck in their homes for weeks, rather than days, many panicked and bought years' worth of essential supplies, while others saw a potential opportunity to hoard supplies they could then resell later. Grocery stores quickly ran out of these supplies, and had a hard time restocking enough in time to provide for other shoppers.
Grocery store shelves can go from fully stocked to bare within a few hours. The reason for this is that in order to remain profitable, grocery stores must turn over their inventory quickly. Grocery stores generally restock their shelves every night. They generally only keep a day or two supply of milk, meat, or eggs, and the entire inventory in the store turns over in no more that 30 days. In cases of a disaster such as hurricanes, blizzards, or the COVID-19 pandemic, essentials fly off the shelves.
What to Expect in the "New Normal"
As people settle in for the "new normal" of life after COVID-19, we likely will not see the sudden disappearance of supplies as we saw in the early days, but we can expect the food supply system to strain beyond what it can handle over the next several months. Because of this, it will be important to be prepared for potential shortages ahead of time. While it is impossible to predict with certainty which items will be hard to find, if we understand potential weak points, we can be prepared ahead of time. Supplies such as toilet paper, disinfectant, and hand soap are reappearing on store shelves, and likely will be available for the duration of the crisis. The pandemic did not increase the need for these supplies, nor did it affect the production of them. The early shortages were due to people panic buying, and this behavior will taper off now that people have plenty of these supplies available. Soon masks, gloves, and thermometers will be available as well, as production will be able to keep up with demand.
Foods such as rice, flour, and corn will likely not experience long-term shortages, as both production and consumption levels will remain about the same as they were prior to the emergence of the corona virus. These items store well, are easy to transport, and are not vulnerable to supply line disruptions. On the other hand, foods that will be vulnerable to disruption include milk, eggs, meat, and fresh vegetables. These foods have a short farm-to-grocery store timeline, and any disruption to the supply chain could cause the grocery stores to run out of stock. Because these items don't last long, shoppers will have to buy regularly.
Restaurants will also be vulnerable to disruptions, as they not only rely on a steady supply of food, but also labor. A disruption of one or the other could force a restaurant to reduce its menu, or shut down permanently. Even with curbside pickup, restaurants will be unable to generate enough revenue to remain profitable. Prior to the corona virus outbreak, restaurants operated at narrow profit margins. With decreased revenue, many restaurants will likely not be able to remain in business for long.
Venezuela gives us a glimpse of what could happen here, and how to best prepare. In living memory, Venezuela was once the wealthiest country in South America due to its rich natural resources and the largest known oil reserves in the world. However, years of socialist policies under presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro plunged the country into a humanitarian disaster, with severe shortages in basic supplies. Venezuela became the largest refugee crisis ever recorded in the Americas. President Maduro rationed electricity, as the power grid only generates a small fraction of its full capacity. Two thirds of the population lack access to potable water. The majority of Venezuelans can’t afford food, and the country lacks basic items such as milk, butter, meat, coffee, medicine, diapers, toilet paper, and soap. The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela continues to spiral downward, and shows no signs of letting up. Venezuela should serve as a dire warning of what statism can lead to, and how we must become more economically resilient.
Building Resilient Sources of Food
It may be too late to start traditional prepping. If you don't already have months' worth of food stored up, you will likely have a hard time finding that much food now. The key at this point is to focus on building a more resilient source of food. Resilience in this context means that your sources of food will be flexible and able to withstand shortages and fluctuation. This will require multiple sources of food and renewable sources of food.
Diversifying your sources of food and supplies will make you more flexible in case one of those sources experiences a shortage. Rather than always buying from the same grocery store or ordering from the same restaurants, try increasing the diversity of your food sources. Find someone who owns chickens or a cow, and trade for eggs or milk. Try online meal and grocery deliveries. Go hunting or fishing, or find something of value to trade with someone who does. Even if you can't diversify your sources of food, you can diversify your sources on income or value creation, so that you can continue to purchase or trade for food in case of future disruptions.
Creating renewable sources of food will decrease your dependence on the traditional food supply chains. Planting a garden now will provide you with a stream of fresh fruits and vegetables in the coming months. You can freeze, dehydrate, can, or trade the surplus produce for other items you may lack. Even if you live in a city without a yard, you can plant herbs and even dwarf fruit trees inside your apartment. You can grow herbs and vegetables on your counter top without using soil or sunlight with a hydroponic garden. You can raise earthworms in your kitchen, which will provide you with a way to dispose of scrap kitchen waste, a steady source of worm castings for soil. Worms are high in protein, and safe to eat with proper handling. Making your own sourdough or kombucha doesn't take much space. If you have a large yard, you may want to raise your own chickens for a steady stream of eggs, or even installing a tilapia pond. Tilapia are easy to raise, and don't require much space. You can raise them in a small backyard pond, or even indoors in a tub or tank.
As with everything, each individual's circumstance is different, and you will need to do what makes the most sense for you and your family. If you live in a city, you may not have the space or time to create a homestead in your back yard, but you may have more diversity in your sources of food or income. If you live in a rural area, you may be largely dependent on yourself or your network of friends to sustain you. Whatever your circumstances, you likely will be best position to improve the resilience of your food sources now. Food and supplies will not likely become more plentiful than they are now, and they may become scarce over the coming months or years. No matter what, you have little risk, and much to gain from building a more resilient food supply.