I went to the supermarket several times this week and last. I was trying to buy food in anticipation of the severe winter weather that would hit Chicago and elsewhere. I discovered that there was a run on many food items--chicken and other meats especially. Odd. There was a plethora of beef tongue and ox tails. I made peace with the fact that I was out of luck. Worst case scenario: I would survive on soda and granola bars.
I returned to the supermarket several times this week--a major chain--and again, whole categories of goods were not on the shelves. A gentleman next to me asked one of the employees "what was going on?" and he replied that "the weather messed up their shipping and the trucks are still not here". The storm ended on Sunday night. The store was still barren on Thursday. I shook my head, wondering, what would happy if there was a "real" disaster, perhaps a mass terrorist attack explicitly designed to disrupt the United States' infrastructure?
Growing up, my father always kept a full commercial sized meat freezer--this was in addition to the freezer that was part of the refrigerator. He was a child of the Great Depression. He had been homeless as a kid and knew the pain of hunger. To his credit, this is why my father would always buy a homeless person food if he or she asked him.
Part of the motivation behind his keeping a full refrigerator and freezer was a sense of masculine working class pride. We always had more than enough food. Someone could lose their job and there would be food for months because his family was not going to the state or singing up for the dole to get help.
One summer there was a tornado. We were without power for more than a week. Despite my father's best efforts we lost at least a thousand dollars worth of food. He dutifully replaced it over the next few months. I took away the wrong lesson from that experience. Instead, I should have learned that if at all possible a family should have a backup electric generator. In error, my lesson was that I would not keep that much food in the refrigerator for fear of spoilage (freezer burn or other types of waste).
As result, I have gotten into the bad habit of buying food as needed.
My mother continually nags me to have lots of canned goods that I can easily buy on sale every so many weeks. She is also in my ear to stock up on bottled water. "You can never have too much bottled water" is her religious-like chant. Much younger than my father, she grew up on a farm. She too learned that it is better to be safe than sorry.
As a young ghetto nerd who took his training and catechism at the Church of Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM, I remember a series of guests who discussed the "Y2K" bug and the fragility of the nation's infrastructure. One of them, to my great surprise, explained how supermarkets replenish almost all of their stock in a several day period. Therefore, our food distribution supply--never mind fuel and other goods--is very vulnerable to any type of disruption or glitch.
Years later, I would become friends with a former student whose new job is to coordinate the shipping of goods for a large coffee-restaurant chain that you have likely heard of. He told me that his job is organized chaos and a choreographed dance where any number of things can go wrong. If one truck is late, or a shipment arrives at a new store in the wrong order, the whole schedule is ruined. He gets in trouble; money is lost; and the ripples go down the shipping chain and across the ecosphere of the organization.
I used to think that the "doomsday preppers" were all obsessive compulsive loons. Most of them are; I would bet money on it. But, based on one slight moment of inconvenience because of the "Polar Vortex", I am finally seeing the virtue of keeping more food, water, and other supplies in the apartment. This is not a function of the pride my father had in keeping a full refrigerator, but rather a response to witnessing the vulnerability and interconnectedness of our shipping and distribution systems.
The disorder wrought by the recent winter storm to our local food supply, and stores more generally, should be a natural story for a local and intrepid investigative journalist. I have not seen any such news items here in Chicago. Are you seeing such stories in your local media? And was my experience at the local supermarket this week and last just an outlier?