Grocery stores can be anchors of resilience during disasters

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As COVID-19 unfolds across the world, we are reminded of how global our food supply chain has become (e.g., fruit from Central and South America, seafood from Asia, and cheese from Europe). We can also see the complexity of food supply chains in other kinds of crisis situations as well. 

Like many people, if you hear of an impending blizzard or hurricane, you probably scramble to your local supermarket. The scene is familiar — jam-packed aisles, empty shelves and long checkout lines. 

Additionally, after catastrophic events, a surge of nonprofit and government trucks hand out food while grocery stores struggle to open or keep up with demand as communities recover from the devastation. 

As witnessed during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, food that is given freely isn’t always nutritious or isn’t distributed at all. Which begs the question: after the storm, where is all the food?

The standard for emergency management is the whole community approach, which calls for the involvement of everyone, including the private sector, to contribute to preparedness and resilience activities. 

The recently updated National Response Framework expands on this approach and adds “additional emphasis on non-governmental capabilities to include the role of individuals and private sector/industry partners in responding to disasters.” 

Central to this framework are community lifelines, or the services in a community that is required to sustain health, safety and economic security. Naturally, food and water are among these lifelines.

Grocery stores play a key role in the resilience of our communities. The importance of these community anchors cannot be understated; the grocery store sector directly employs more than 4.8 million Americans and contributes $363 billion to the economy. 

Despite the rise in e-commerce, American households still take 2.2 grocery store trips per week. Even in urban areas where grocery delivery is common, shoppers routinely stop for groceries on their way home from work, and urban shoppers are more likely to use small neighborhood stores. 

Grocery stores are the infrastructure to a community lifeline as well as a regular gathering place within a neighborhood. Stores are often co-located with other important services (e.g., banks, pharmacies, health clinics, etc.), and its workers understand the needs of their particular community. 

Stated differently, an individual can obtain many lifelines in one location (e.g., food, healthcare and cash).

The food supply chain is complex and labor-intensive. In simplistic terms, a raw product from a farm is grown and delivered by a truck to a manufacturing plant that makes the food item in large quantities. The items are then transported (via truck, boat and/or train) to a warehouse where it is handled by employees who are certified to run pallet jacks or loaders. 

Once a store places an order, the warehouse selects the items, efficiently organizes them on a pallet and the pallets are put on a truck that could travel a hundred miles to be at the store within a designated time period, due to labor schedules and city curfews. On average, supermarkets carry 30,000+ items. With limited storage space and high inventory turnover, a store could flip its entire stock 11-18 times a year. Furthermore, many stores receive deliveries within 18-24 hours of placing their order, several times a week. All this activity to provide consumers with goods at a low cost (e.g., U.S. average $3.27 for a gallon of milk).

On a normal day, one C&S Wholesale Grocer’s warehouse can send 200 trucks (~600 stores) out for delivery. During times of crisis, such as a hurricane, C&S will see the demand for critical items, such as batteries and water increase 500-650 percent. C&S works closely with its partner grocery stores and chains to provide the right food and household items immediately. 

Particularly after a storm, the food supply chain must adapt to areas with extensive damage and power loss — putting together deliveries of critical commodities, scheduling extra trucks and drivers, navigating road closures and dropping off refrigerated trailers when stores lose power to save perishable food. 

Decisions made by the government (e.g., travel bans, fuel rationing and prioritizing areas for debris clearance and utility restoration) in addition to pulling the same resources the food industry uses to handle the increased demand, further impact the supply chain for days. All the while, the demand for food never stops.

A recent FEMA PrepTalk cited FEMA’s Hurricane Maria food operation in Puerto Rico as being their largest distribution operation ever. However, it only comprised 4-6 percent of the market. Grocery stores and wholesalers, like C&S, are advocating for more public-private planning partnerships to make the food supply chain more resilient before the next disaster strikes. 

Together, we can get grocery stores back up and running quickly, assist the government to target food deserts and work to prevent food access disparities that can last years, as seen during Hurricane Katrina. Quick restoration of grocery stores can help households navigate their new normal, return community members to employment and support recovery through the provision of fresh, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food. 

Carmela Hinderaker is the senior director of Business Continuity and Customer Support at C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc. is the largest wholesale grocery supply company in the U.S. supplying more than 7,700 independent supermarkets, chain stores, military bases and institutions with over 137,000 different products. Jeff Schlegelmilch is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the forthcoming book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.

Tags Convenience store Food desert Food industry Grocery store retailers Supermarkets Urban decay

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