Friday, January 10, 2014

Is the American Food Supply Chain Really So Vulnerable and Unreliable? Post "Polar Vortex" and Winter Storm, Is Your Local Supermarket Still Barren and a Picked Over Mess?

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?


Bryan Ortez said...

Haven't seen any similar news items around here. The grocery store was a little more bare than usual, but not barren, there was certainly enough to go around.

Is it a shame on us for not using ox tail or beef tongue regularly?

I hope the local food movements continue to grow and people continue to learn more and more about food from seed to table. I hope to join those ranks when I am able.

Did you hear about that chemical spill in central West Virginia? They can't even bathe in their water much less cook or drink with it. What a shame. We're fortunate to not live within that watershed. I know grocery stores can be few and far between down there. 300,000 residents affected. And during this winter? damn.

kscoyote said...

It's not likely the store would have run out of food, save for the paranoid buying a lot more than they need.

So, in defense of the paranoid, you become paranoid. And so the cycle continues.

chauncey devega said...

There is much to be said for preparation. I just went out shopping and many items are still missing. These "lean" supply chains are not safe. I am going to stock up on canned goods each week until I have a basic selection of soups, vegetables, etc. I am also going to buy a few dozens bottles of water to put in the closet.

I have multiple wind up Grundig radios and a hand torch that can charge phones and other items. I am going to really buy some more stuff for my get out of town quick backpack. I need more batteries as well. I have a decent first aid kid. I did see a small medical military first aid reference guide on sale at the bookstore that I am going to grab too.

I get you on the allure of false needs and panic buying and capitalism. Sometimes better safe than sorry though.

chauncey devega said...

Disaster capitalism neo liberalism and austerity run amok. That is what your Ayn Rand Republicans want--no regulations or safety controls. Such "freedoms" made Texas the paradise it is today!

Frank said...

In my part of the world, we worry more about hurricanes than about cold. We had two frigid days with no noticeable affect on the supermarkets.

But we still have canned food in the pantry from preparing for Sandy, which, fortunately for us, made landfall farther north.

But I can agree with kscoyote about the panic buying.

When I lived in Delaware, we returned from a holiday visit to my parents amidst a forecast of snow in Delaware (which never materialized). When I went to the market to restock our shelves, as we had been away for over a week and had eaten ourselves out of house and home before we left, there was no bread or milk in the local market, none at all, because of panic buying. The milk and bread shelves at our local Super Fresh were stripped bare.

kokanee said...

And the Democrats go right along with the Republicans -- albeit with a sad look on their faces. The Dems under Clinton gutted welfare. The Dems bailed out the banks and not the homeowners. The Dems have been on an austerity tear. The sequester was Obama's initiative. The recent budget deal undid the sequester cuts to the military and the cuts come from the social program side. No jobs. No minimum wage. Job cuts from the Federal government. And no Medicare for all. And what are we supposed to like about the Dems? Throw them all out: Republicans and Democrats.

chauncey devega said...

I am going to post a piece on that devil's bargain next week.

Unemployment extended but those on disability screwed? The Dems of today are the heirs of NAFTA and the DLC which is Austerity and neoliberalism lite. Question. Would you rather get electrocuted all at once or a little bit at a time to quote Fred Sanford?

! said...

during the whole Y2K thing, my parents declared that we would have no problems trading with others and surviving, because my mom always bought tampons at Costco and we had a whole shelf in the basement devoted to wine.

Nowadays I do try to keep some extra food around. You don't want to get stuck in the middle of a panic buying spree. Just for practical reasons alone.

kscoyote said...

Growing up, just about every home we lived in had fireplaces, and we had generators, because of frequent ice storms, that could cut power for days, rarely, weeks.... In such times, the stuff in the freezer ended up on the roof, etc... but the problem was not acquiring food, it was lack of pay.

But then my family were hunters, gardeners, and canners -and we didn't lack for rice, beans, etc., and pickled watermelon was tasty... For meat, finding food was not hard for my folk, in the wild...

When I am short -living in this place -it's not hard to find wild foods, I know where the Jerusalem artichokes are, Where the deer are, and raccoons are always close by.... In favor of your argument, it was very hard in DC when I lived there. There was nothing but pavement and poisonous ornamental plants.

Since I am home, for the time being - I suppose I have an advantage. Such things were never that worrisome to me until I lived in Washington, DC.

Here, and my time 5 hours south of here, in Arkansas - Wild Turkeys and deer would be in my parking lot, in winter, and there were all kinds of stuff to eat.

I had forgotten how stranded people are on the East Coast, and so I'm probably going to have to agree with you.

You should probably have a couple weeks worth of food on the East Coast, because there is no wildlife there.

In the West, it's not that big of a concern...

kokanee said...

Re: "I am going to post a piece on that devil's bargain next week."

Great! I look forward to it.

Re: "Would you rather get electrocuted all at once or a little bit at a time to quote Fred Sanford?"

The former. Would you rather get shot from the front by a foe or stabbed in the back by a friend?

Gable1111 said...

That's the case, and its because they all feed at the same trough, and are beholden to the same paymasters. The money they all get as "campaign contributions": in any other arena would be called bribes.

Instead of standing on principle and calling for progressive policies commensurate with what the pedigree of the democratic party is supposedly, they propose republican lite policies -- we'll only cut $8 billion to the GOP's $40 billion and call these victories, all the while seemingly oblivious to the reality that they are playing the GOP game of killing off the safety net via a death of a thousand cuts.

But the reality is, save for the ACA, you're hard pressed to recall when the democrats passed anything that was intentioned to directly benefit the vast majority, without some sop to "the job creators," and that's because the paymasters they share with the GOP won't stand for it.

Gable1111 said...

I live outside Chicago, and going into a Meijer Sunday night found the shelves damn near picked clean. Mostly the basics; bread, milk, eggs were gone.

I've seen worse storms, so I was surprised. But there were no stories on it.

But they are now naming winter storms, the way they name hurricanes. This storm was "Winter Storm Hercules" (lawd hamercy!) and the reason for it appears to be to hype these things for the purpose of getting consumers tuned in.

helicon said...

lol@stockpiling sissies - hungry IQ-75 loozers will shoot you gun-control faggots in the head and take your shit.

RNegron said...

Living in Manhattan I did not notice any lack in any store that I use, and I cook every day although we by meets twice a month and freeze them. Then again Kristie Kreme seems to have got out of the habit of messing up NYC Traffic.

kokanee said...

Well said.

Don't get me started on ACA. The Dems had the House, the White House and a filibuster proof Senate and all that they could do is pass a mandated corporate health care system instead of Medicare for all. Grrrr.

gnocchi said...

The Dems had the House, the White House and a filibuster proof Senate and all that they could were directed by their paymasters to do is pass a mandated corporate health care system


kokanee said...

Yes, thanks. ;)

Learning Is Eternal said...

Go play in traffic.

Do the right thing. Sacrifice yourself for the betterment of society. Us @WARN will remember you... Not.

Buddy H said...

I remember seeing Groucho Marx when he was in his eighties, doing a one-man show, reminiscing about his life in show business. He told a story about visiting W.C. Fields, and taking a tour of his house. Fields had one room filled with crates and crates of gin, vodka, vermouth, rum, whiskey. Groucho was amazed to see this. "Bill," he said. "Prohibition is over." Fields replied "It might come back."

Black Sci-Fi said...

If you want to talk about food shortages then take a trip to Maui and try to find a simple can of pork n' beans, any time of year. I spent a month living in Hawaii and was shocked at how dependent they were on a VERY long distance food supply line from the mainland. Most mid-size grocery stores on Maui have very thin stock and you can see more shelves than products. My local stores here in Chicago (South Side) were fully stocked and only had minor shortages (dairy products?) for a day during the worst of the storm. The reality is that Americans are used to the convenience of buying fresh fruits and veggies that were historically "out of season" and the influence of organic food consumption has only exaggerated the "sense" of shortage. " fresh grapes?" And, we all must concede that the bananas that are always on the shelves of even the smallest grocery stores don't grow in California, Texas or Florida...damn it. I also grew up in a family that had a "meat freezer" in the basement and can relate to the food anxiety mentality of growing up with depression era parents. Now that I'm single again I tend to focus less on a full fridge and more on quality meals. I've lost 30 pounds of "daddy fat" that comes with preparing food for a tribe and making sure there are treats on the shelf for the kids or making fast food lunches (or dinner?) a staple because of a 2 working parent household. My grandfather, a depression-era truck mechanic, kept half of his neighborhood fed with food that..uh...fell off a truck, so to speak. I'm sure he would be shocked by the convenience of ordering your favorite pizza via the Internet.. using a cell phone. But, just like the regular folks on Maui who aren't rich and must shop for reasonably priced groceries and prepare their own meals on a daily basis, supply and demand is more than just a notion when a major/minor interruption of the food supply chain produces major/minor shortages. During these weather related crisis in large urban areas it's more problematic to get to the grocery store than to buy food once you arrive. Those weather related food shortage problems are even more exacerbated in low income communities. The major grocery store chains have pulled up stakes and abandoned the residents to the fate of much higher prices and much lower variety. And, of course, low income communities also must face the daily indignity of the small immigrant-owned corner grocery store and being served by an always wary owner who is behind 2 inches of bullet-proof plexiglass and monitoring your every movement with a hall of mirrors and multitude of closed circuit cameras. To those residents, the food shortage apocalypse arrived a long time ago, with no end in sight. Food will always be delivered to rich neighborhoods, regardless of the weather.

chauncey devega said...

Grouch was a man of many great endowments--intellectual and otherwise. He and Chaplain were genius talents.The latter was amazing in terms of his transition to movies. I wonder how many people realize his and the Marx brothers' contributions.

chauncey devega said...

What store? Trader Joes was still missing lots of items this week. Treasure Island is more or less okay but there are items--canned goods especially and some types of meat--that are still missing.

chauncey devega said...

Have things gotten back to normal?

chauncey devega said...

Tampons and wine? Interesting story there. They should build those items into the new Fallout game. Forget the bottle caps we want tampons!

Gable1111 said...

They have. I went back to the same store two days later and things appeared to have returned to normal.

The interesting thing about this storm was that the worst of it was to be the extreme cold, but this was the first time people behaved this way, that I can recall, for something like this. Just goes to show the power of media to shape behavior.

! said...

I am sure they were simply mocking the "prepper"/militia mentality of the time... But can't you imagine all the neighbor ladies making a monthly trek to our place, desperate for the precious goods?

Buddy H said...

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the Marx brothers had a surge in popularity. I lived near an independent movie theater, and saw them on the big screen. Harpo, in his later years, recorded an album with Mahalia Jackson:

As far as Chaplin, I had no idea who he was until I was an adult. As a kid, I could watch Abbott and Costello or the three stooges morning, noon and night, but Chaplin was nowhere to be seen. I think he was successfully erased from the public, like Paul Robeson, for being a "lefty."... It wasn't until I saw "The Great Dictator" years later, and Chaplin's great finale speech; his call for humanism and racial tolerance, that I saw what I'd been missing.

DanF said...

Sorry I'm late to this discussion ... I'm not trying to late-bomb the thread so as to get the last word (that no one will read). It's important to note that the filibusterer proof majority contained Joe Lieberman, Max Baucus, Evan Bayh (and several other blue dog, corporatists). The defection of any one of them torpedoed the filibuster proof majority. Evan Bayh alone had significant ties to the insurance industry. So in truth, we were negotiating with ourselves - not the GOP. ACA was likely the best option we could get - as sucky as that option is. Also, the insurance/medical industries account for 18% of our GDP. It probably would not have been a good idea to tell that huge sector of our economy that they were SOL in the middle of the great recession. In truth, I think ACA ends with public insurance and a single payer like option. There will be pressure to allow Medicare to participate in the exchanges, and private sector profits won't be able to compete with them on pricing.

DanF said...

I remember streaming "Coast to Coast" in the late nineties ('97-ish) from Art Bell's website. My office mates and I would be rolling on the floor with laughter at some of his guests and his odd paranoia fantasies (although I always felt like Art was in on the gag - perhaps that's his genius). He had to be one of the first radio personalities to start streaming. I remember the commercials for Baygen hand-crank radios. Before Y2K they were a dominant sponsor.

kokanee said...

Never too late to join a thread!

You seems to be giving legitimacy to a party and a system that doesn't deserve any.
The Democratic Party could have easily passed Medicare for all or even a public
option but the majority (if not most) of of the Democratic lawmakers are indeed
corporatists. Passing Medicare for all would have been hugely popular and the Dems
would have probably increased their numbers. Instead, they lost the House completely
and several seats in the Senate. Indeed some Democrats run on progressive and
populist platforms only to get elected but it's all just lip service. It's all just
Kabuki theater. And make no mistake, the Democratic Party is an elitist, racist
corporatist, militarist party that pretends it isn't. If we want social justice in
this country then we have to find another way. (Okay, rant over.)

This is how the Dems scuttled their own public option:

Black Sci-Fi said...

I live less than a block from HP Produce. I can say with certainty that the delivery trucks were rolling the next day after the polar vortex hit and severe snow followed. I never made it to Treasure Island, etc because my car was buried and frozen. And ,frankly, I can get everything I need (chicken, rice, veggies, potatoes, fruit, juice and dairy) within a block of my home. I can understand your frustration regarding the lack of variety but, for me, it nerver reached the point of being comparable to a zombie apocalypse.

OldPolarBear said...

Kind of late here, and maybe folks have moved on. We had the extreme cold here but not the mess of snow that Chicago, Indiana, etc. had. I didn't even try to go to the store for a few days as we try to keep enough stocked so we are not desperate and can get by for a few days -- canned goods, frozen chili and lentil soup, beans.

But your experience is very interesting. I am in the habit, for especially the last 8 or so years, to read quite a few blogs of people that some would call "doomers." Their predictions actually range quite a bit, from extreme apocalypse to just more difficult times ahead. Peak oil, financial bubbles, global warming, that kind of thing. A lot of them predicted the Crash of 2008, and got pretty close to the right timing. One of the common predictions that many of them make is that as things become increasingly frayed, with infrastructure breaking down, that the "just in time" inventory model used by the big chain stores will be increasingly subject to disruptions like the recent weather event. Add to that the feverish budget-cutting, which eliminates people and equipment that deals with these issues. Also, not only will there be more "big" events as the effects of climate change kick in, but events that previously wouldn't have been quite so "big" will have severe impacts because of the infrastructure breakdowns and budget cutting.

I get kscoyote's point about the paranoia and panic buying not being a good thing and reinforcing itself to become a problem, but I also think it would be good if people had a certain level of stockpiling. It might lead to less of a panic when things did get bad, and be stabilizing. The key would be for people to plan ahead and stock up a little at a time. It sounds like that is your plan.

DanF said...

Yea - I go round-and-round with a friend of mine on this point. For me the political battle is between the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the rest of the party. My friend is simply done with Team D. For better or worse, we have a two-party system and voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for less evil. Rather than voting Green, I'd rather put my efforts into getting better Democrats in those districts that will support better Democrats (I live in Indiana, and believe me, Joe Donnelly and Evan Bayh are about all that will be tolerated for a Senate Democrat in this state - voting Green is just making the state a deeper red).

My answer to those that want to kick out both parties is to put your efforts into getting instant voter run-off mainstreamed. I would LOVE to be able to mark a real progressive as option 1 on my ballot and the Democrat as option 2. Even if Option 1 loses, my vote doesn't go to the pure corporatist, only the partial corporatist - plus the corporatists knows that X% really wanted someone to the left of them. The Tea Party would love it, the Greens, the Socialist, the Libertarians - it's really the only way I see forward to a multiparty system.

kokanee said...

Good response. It made me smile. Yes, of course, instant run-off voting and proportional representation would be huge improvements to our political system. (That's why it will never happen without a serious threat of removing the Dems or Repubs from power.) You are obviously knowledgable of the issues and arguments for and against the Dems. That's all anyone can ask. The rest is a personal decision and it's neither clear cut nor always easy.
Personally, I will support any candidate from any party that doesn't accept corporate donations nor large donations --provided that s/he respects basic human rights and values.
The Democratic Party is on Chauncey's radar. It should be interesting to hear what he has to say on the Dem's latest capitulations/fiascos.

chauncey devega said...

Just in time, cutting staff, and then the system breaks. And what about the staff who are impacted by the same dynamics? 5 bucks or so in stuff each week. You sound like someone who likes to be ready. What are your guidelines?

chauncey devega said...

We are neighbors then. HP Produce is a great store. TI is so overpriced.

chauncey devega said...

Tampons are good for bullet wounds too. Your stash would have been very desirable.

disqus_4Jy24XjH8I said...

The media, oligarchy-owned, never show you when things go wrong like this. Was it two years ago, when a Boston water main broke? There was a run on the water supplies in the stores, lotta people didn't have any water. Saw it on an online video, NOT on TV.
Remember Hurricane Sandy, New York? All kinds of problems, hardly any TV coverage. A year ago, a problem in San Diego, CA.
Need I mention Katrina?

disqus_4Jy24XjH8I said...

Don't forget Clinton signed NAFTA- and all our jobs left the country.

disqus_4Jy24XjH8I said...

But that's just it- it doesn't matter the reason for the empty shelves, if they're empty and you're starving.
Put in oats, dried beans, dried rice, canned goods, bottled water, which you rotate.
Doesn't hurt a thing, and you don't have to tell anyone you're a 'prepper'. LOL

chauncey devega said...

Boston? San Diego? New to me. Please share more info.

chauncey devega said...

Art's gift was/is the ability to listen and to take every caller and guest seriously. I want to read his bio if it is available. How did he learn the craft?

T said...

I scan and read about 100 blogs a night. On the Boston thing, probably a prepper site about a year ago.
San Diego, maybe 8 months ago, same prepper type thing.
Hurricane Sandy would've been Warren Pollock's youtube channel

OldPolarBear said...

The guidelines are pretty informal; even calling them guidelines might be too much. It is usually not beyond maybe a week that we could get by. 3 days would get us through even a really awful blizzard. We eat a lot of rice, beans, lentils and garbanzos so we have several bags of each and rotate. They will keep a long time, but if the gas/power is off, we can't cook them. So we like to cook up a big bunch for a meal, and freeze what is left for future meals. There are maybe 3 or 4 meals' worth in the freezer. Natural peanut butter, the kind that is just peanuts and oil (and maybe salt) will keep quite a while as long as it is not opened. We have maybe 4 to 6 jars in the cupboard at any given time. Also cans of tuna.

Electrical power is one of the big factors, which is why we should be repairing and beefing up the electricity grid infrastructure, but that doesn't seem likely. Keep the lights on, and society can deal with quite a bit of hardship.

But there are people who plan for much longer-term shortage. A lot of the blogs talk a lot about alternate sources for cooking energy, solar cookers and so forth. I would like to look into some more of these things and be more prepared for trouble but sometimes I just don't feel I have the energy to face it. People talk about surviving the Apocalypse or the Zombie Rising, and those can make for entertaining movies, novels and TV shows, but sometimes I wonder: Would I really want to? So mostly, a week or two is about as far out as I look supply-wise.

DanF said...

His big thing was to have a platform where people would not be ridiculed. He wouldn't say he believed, but he wouldn't say he didn't. I especially remember an open line night where he encouraged Satan to call in. There were like four different Satan dudes - each with a more contrived Satan voice than the last. I don't know how Art maintained his straight face, but he treated each guest as if they believed what they were saying was true. I always wondered how the second or third Satan to call in felt about being on hold. "I'm the dark lord! What do you mean, 'Will I hold?'!?!'" [...] "Yeah... I'll hold."

kokanee said...

Yes, of course they are. So why do we keep voting for them?