Eating at home more lately? You are not alone. Consumer food demand has pivoted abruptly over the past two months from about 50 percent of meals consumed outside of the home to virtually none. My experiences early in this shift revealed household purchases stripping local supermarket inventories, leaving shelves bare of produce, meat, eggs and paper products.
Trade associations and supply chain experts note there is no major lack of US food supply, aside from some slowdown in meat packing due to workforce health issues but explain that for some products, a food producer’s ability to pivot from food service types of processing and packaging quickly is a huge challenge. Think about packing lines that have been built to fill milk in cafeteria style small cartons for schools quickly adjusting to the demand for milk in gallon jugs now needed by families with kids not in school. Even if a food manufacturer has a production line to fill milk into gallon jugs it probably is not sized to the current demand for gallon jugs.
Our food system, like much of our modern food supply chains, has developed into specific processes for specific markets. As such, our lack of patronage at restaurants has thrown a huge wrench into the food service supply chain – its producers, packagers and distributors – that now needs to figure out how to repackage or reroute product to buyers that want pre-cut onions in 20-pound bags, flats of three dozen eggs and a 25-pound box of steaks.
The USDA saw this mismatch product specifications along with record unemployment and increasing need for food assistance and recently put $1.2B to work awarding food distributors to create boxes of fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy and in sizes suitable for households and deliver those boxes at no cost to food banks and other eligible non-profits. This redirect of the supply chain through the Farmers to Families Food Box program will help farmers, ranchers, distributors, food banks and those in need of food during this disruptive time.
Coloradans love to eat out and many of us are bemoaning curbside pickup and home delivery versus the experience of dining in some place other than our home. For our restaurants to stay in business they need our patronage. In addition to the curbside and delivery experiences, consider buying gift cards that provide some cash flow now for restaurants to be there in the future for us.
Similarly, our farms and ranches that create the value for the restaurants that feature Colorado products need your support. An April 8 statewide survey of 63 farms and ranches conducted by the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Colorado State University Extension indicates there is a 20 percent slowdown in wholesale channels, 32 percent slowdown in restaurant sales and 25 percent slowdown in farmers market sales, with 30 percent reporting no sales at that date and thus no reference for reporting impact of COVID-19 on sales. Many farmers markets have created online sales platforms, and some are reopening to live marketplace sales on site. All are faced with sales volume constraints due to public health protocols in place. Now more than ever Colorado agriculture wants you to know that it is open for business and it needs your patronage.
In any given year farming and ranching is risky business. Weather, markets and increasingly workforce make this essential business a very fragile occupation.
We now have a small glimpse of what food scarcity might look like in a food abundant country. What will we learn from this pandemic? We might learn that food is a national security issue and consider more often the stability of the Colorado farms and ranches that feed us.
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information on agriculture in Boulder County,visit the CSU Extension Boulder County website at boulder.extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.