If there are empty shelves in Maine grocery stores right now, don’t blame it on a shortage of food.
There are currently no nationwide shortages of food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. However, inventory of specific food at some stores may be temporarily low due to supply and labor issues that food industry experts say began with the start of the pandemic in 2020.
In March 2020, grocery shelves around Maine were emptied of staples including pasta, beans, rice, meat, chicken, toilet paper and soap as shoppers rushed to stores in a COVID-fueled panic shopping spree.
Many stores have been playing catch-up ever since. Combine that with the closure of several large commercial meat processing plants across the country, difficulties in getting raw supplies from overseas, labor shortages and transportation issues and the result is a nationwide slowdown in getting food from its source to the stores.
“It can be that there is no staff to take the products off trucks, or there are labor shortages creating logistical problems with getting those supplies to the stores,” said Christine Cummings, executive director of The Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association.
“The feedback I have been hearing is there is widespread inventory of food. But fluctuations in supply can be created when panic buying causes supply disparity.”
The availability of certain canned goods, for example, has been affected not by any shortages in food to can, but by a global shortage of, and price increase for aluminum to make those cans.
“I have heard from several food producers that they are facing challenges in sourcing packaging materials,” Cummings said.
Cummings has recently returned from a national conference with others in the grocery and food supply industries and said the consensus is there will likely be sporadic availability of certain products in the coming months.
“I was talking to suppliers who told me they would place orders of 600 items and receive only 400,” Cummings said. “Then the rest of their order would trickle in later.”
The key to preventing any shortages, Cummings said, is common sense and thinking of others. “I have not heard any behind the scenes panic talk about possible mass shortages,” she said.
“People should plan on buying what they need and leave what you don’t need for your neighbor.”