This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
At a Giant supermarket in Maryland this Tuesday evening, shoppers were surprised to discover that coolers and bins that normally held bananas, leafy greens, and onions were completely empty. “This is freaking me out,” one man confided to another, as they circled the area in confusion. In the meat department, the only item in a cooler normally filled with chicken breasts was a sign indicating they were temporarily out of stock “due to recent surges in COVID-19 cases and the resulting labor shortages.”
In what can feel like a repeat of spring 2020, people are sharing photos of similar scenes at stores around the country, and reports of empty shelves are coming in from Massachusetts and Florida. While this round of shortages has some things in common with the last one, a lot has changed in the two years since Americans — both at home and in Washington, D.C. — began paying attention to food supply chains in a new way.
Once again, experts and food companies say that there is plenty of food in the country, but a bundle of factors along the supply chain appear to be preventing it from getting to shoppers. What’s new is a shortage of workers that began with the Great Resignation and has spiked with the omicron surge, compounded by short-term disruptions in certain industries and regions from extreme weather and produce recalls.
While companies are hustling to get through the surge and expect things to level out soon, some are also already working to change their models to avoid similar challenges in the future, and experts say how the food system operates is certain to change in longer-term ways.
The Supply Chain Right Now
“We don’t have a problem with farms producing enough food. We have problems with not enough labor in the supply chains between the farms and the consumers,” said Paul Lightfoot, president and founder of BrightFarms, a company that grows leafy greens hydroponically at five indoor farms in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Since the start of the pandemic, workers in many industries have been quitting their jobs in high numbers. Food workers across the supply chain have long been some of the lowest paid across industries and subject to terrible working conditions; now they’re facing burnout. During COVID-19, workers in meatpacking plants, food manufacturing plants, grocery stores, and restaurants suffered through outbreaks and deaths, while being pushed to work harder to meet increased demand.
In November, a month when 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs, six representatives from a broad cross-section of the country’s food system told the House Agriculture Committee that the labor shortage is the number one “immediate” issue facing national supply chains. And then omicron hit.
“The food industry continues to adapt to a shifting marketplace, but the bottom line is that we must have access to a stable workforce in order to adequately meet the demands of American consumers,” Greg Ferrara,