So, when our Prime Minister announced that New Zealand was going into lockdown, we were all told that supermarkets were going to continue operating as normal, but with some restrictions. Unfortunately most kiwis visiting their local supermarket now are finding some bare shelves, and nobody seems to be able to get basics such as flour and milk, and we’re told that people need to stop hoarding to fix the problem.
Not so fast though, hoarding can’t be to blame when our dairy farms produce more than enough each day, after all, we are a net food producer, right? Well, there is something that the PM failed to consider when promising us all that food would continue to be available, and that is the shift in demand away from some types of food and towards others.
Imagine a typical week prior to lockdown where a family with a couple of kids shops for groceries. Their cart would have enough bread for toast each morning and sandwiches for school lunches (unless Jacinda is cooking your lunch for you at school of course) and enough milk for coffee, tea, and maybe a little baking for the week. But now, consider most families are having to “resort” to baking and all of a sudden need triple the milk, flour, and other ingredients compared to before.
Consider some things that few people wanted before, such as yeast in small retail packages, that has probably spiked in demand by a tens of thousands of percent in the last week and it will take time to bring the supply up to that level, and also leave supermarkets with a massive oversupply should the lockdown actually finish after 4 weeks as initially promised – they’d be stuck with thousands of dollars of perishable product after demand drops post-pandemic.
But the total amount of food is the same right, since the number of people are the same? Apart from probably more snacking going on while being bored that is going to be generally true, but the bought foods (that’s the takeaways, the cafes, restaurants, coffee stands) is now having to come from the supermarkets rather than all the other distribution that used to happen to get those things to the outlets where they need to be. Under lockdown, every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner need to come from your pantry, and that means different types of food, and more ingredients needed. Even something as simple as teabags, which used to come to the workplace in a bulk box now have each sequestered employee needing to buy their own box so the demand for small boxes goes way up.
Perhaps as much as a quarter or a third of the average kiwi’s consumed food each week might have been bought as takeaways or from cafes, restaurants, coffee stand and so on, which all needs to now be sourced from the only outlets the government is allowing us to buy from – supermarkets. That means that even under normal operating conditions it would be extra demand to fill, but when you add on the shift in foods being sought you end up with empty shelves.
So will the supply pick up? well, that uncertainly around how long the lockdown will last is going to be a killer here. Committing to thousands of tons of flour in 1kg bags that you might not be able to sell in a month is not the kind of risk businesses like to take. New Zealand, like many countries operates a just-in-time supply chain, where items are produced, shipped, and sold according to demand and there’s not often huge stockpiles lying about, and some thing such as egg production cannot be scaled quickly as it takes time to increase the number of laying hens. And to increase supply of a different packaging (something like flour in small bags rather than bulk) the production lines would need to be ramped up, which again is a risky investment for a short term surge in demand, so while the producers of the now-in-demand goods will work overtime to try to meet the flood of orders, the actual supply will probably fall well short for the rest of lockdown.
The other thing to look at is the ability for supermarkets to get the food into peoples homes. The online ordering systems of our 2 main chains are completely swamped and it’s nigh on impossible to get an online order delivered in less than a week. The limiting of customers in the shops is also a huge bottleneck in terms of actually getting food into pantries. Imagine a medium city of 100,000 people which might have 8 large supermarket locations. If the average house has 4 people in it that’s 25,000 households each with one nominated shopper, and the average kiwi can probably afford a weeks groceries at a time, waiting on their next paycheck. That means every week each supermarket location needs to funnel around 3100 shoppers through per week. The local Countdown here is letting 5 shoppers in at a time, and if the average is just 20 minutes to shop and get through the checkouts then it will take almost 30 hours per day to get everyone though, which clearly doesn’t work. If you bump the number up to 10 at once then 15 hours a day of supermarket operation will get each household a single 20-minute shopping slot for the week for their nominated shopper.
It’s not hard to see that the way our food supply chain has been operating is completely unprepared to contend with lockdown, especially with the miserly warning we all got. It was fairly obvious for at least a few weeks that not closing our borders or having any border control procedures meant we would follow other nations into strict quarantine procedures, and an aware leader would have used that time to prepare suppliers for the inevitable adjustments. Instead we got inaction followed by 48 hours of prep time.
Essential staff are doing their best to cope with the expectations of a nation in this time, but they’re being badly let down by those organizing this fiasco.