COVID-19 Is Causing Food Shortages. Here’s How to Manage

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is causing breaks in our food chain, resulting in shortages of products, like beef and pork, in some stores.
  • Scarcity of items has led some people to begin panic-buying products en masse that ended up going bad or spoiling.
  • Experts advise that if certain meat items are scarce in your area, now might be the time to try plant-based substitutes to relieve some stress on our strained system, and give you peace of mind about your own food security.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused some notable shifts in how we approach food, from what we consume and where we consume it to how it’s being produced and made available to us.

Certainly in the United States, the pandemic has played a major role in reshaping our interactions with food.

Restaurants have closed regular service in many parts of the country, while physical distancing has mandated people interact differently in supermarkets. Many places have instituted a 6-feet-apart rule while standing in checkout lines.

The pandemic has also affected what foods we even have access to.

But as the pandemic continues, what can you do about how these disruptions affect your own experience with food?

Healthline spoke with several experts who addressed how you can adjust to these COVID-19-driven changes, and contextualized just what these shifts mean for our culture as a whole moving forward.

The impact of abrupt changes to the food supply

Recently, some major meat processing plants have been forced to close — if even temporarily — due to the new coronavirus spreading among their workforce, the Associated Press reported.

This has particularly affected rural parts of the country, with 900 of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Dakota tied to a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant in Sioux Falls.

As with everything during this period, the closure of meat processing plants has caused some political controversy.

President Trump recently signed an executive order that mandates these kinds of plants remain open to avoid major ruptures in the country’s food supply.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, told Healthline that she expects each part of the country to be affected differently by their own unique disruptions in food production.

“For example, some states may see a shortage in pork while others are seeing shortages in beef. Either way, it is tragic that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of animals will be euthanized — hopefully more humanely than what happens in slaughterhouses,” she explained. “What a waste of resources and life.”

She says that when it came to plant-based foods and produce, she sees added tragedy in the fact that some farms will have to bulldoze or plow their crops, given that there will be no way to get their food “off the farm and into stores or food banks” in time of lockdown and isolation.

“When we look at food deserts, which already tend to have food shortages, we run into even more problems of shortages in healthy items. So, I think people will have to get creative with what is available, not be afraid to try new things, like plant-based meats, and look for other items they can try,” she added.

Registered dietitian Amber Pankonin, MS, LMNT, told Healthline that the impacts of these kinds of closures of food production sites are hard to assess since they’re so recent.

In Nebraska, where she lives, she says they haven’t seen store shortages yet but does believe they’re coming.

“I don’t know if people realize how closing a processing plant could lead to a meat shortage and how that impacts the farmers,” Pankonin said. “It will probably be a shock for some when they realize they can no longer find ground beef in the grocery store.”

She says these kinds of abrupt changes could bring about creative solutions in the form of direct farm-to-consumer sales.

“Being from the Midwest, I know of several companies who can ship meat or vegetables directly to the consumer. The meat is still processed at a facility where it can be inspected by the USDA, but it allows the consumer to directly purchase from the producer,” Pankonin said.

“The expense is higher compared to what you might find at the grocery store, but it is convenient and does offer the advantage of knowing where your food is coming from,” she explained.

Pankonin has a friend who is a cattle producer — a college senior who just started her own meat company, where she sells directly to consumers through a subscription plan.

“She is completely sold out for the next few weeks, and she believes it’s due to COVID-19 and the impact it’s having on the food industry,” she said.