Rural grocers deal with supply issues due to COVID-19


Mankato Free Press

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Like a lot of people, Andrew Storjohann was frustrated when he tried to shop for groceries in Mankato in March. Customers were flocking to stores buying whatever they could get, from toilet paper to bread to canned food and pasta.

“People are (acting) stupid,” Storjohann said of the stockpiling. “People are just, I think, overreacting and it’s just put a strain on everybody.”

Fast forward a few weeks and the initial stockpiling craze has largely calmed down. Yet Storjohann, who lives in Janesville, and many other rural residents face more difficulty than the average Mankato resident in getting groceries.

In many cases, people who live outside of the Greater Mankato area rely on rural grocery stores for basic goods. Few parts of south-central Minnesota qualify as a food desert, meaning most residents can find a grocery store within 10 miles of where they live.

While several grocers say they’re still able to provide much of what residents want, they’re seeing a growing run on everything from milk to eggs to even flour as supply chains and food manufacturers reckon with the ongoing effects of COVID-19, the Mankato Free Press reported.

“This is our 40th year, and I think I have not ever seen the amount of out-of-stock items that I’ve seen lately,” said Michael Tatge, owner of The Market in Madison Lake.

Rural grocers in south-central Minnesota tell similar stories. Canned foods and non-perishables such as rice and pasta were in hot demand for a while. The price of eggs recently went up, provided you could find a supplier that had some. And don’t even think about trying to get cleaning supplies shipped, let alone toilet paper.

“Toilet paper, handwipes, sanitizer, all that kind of stuff we’re still waiting on,” said Barb Mathistad Warner, co-owner of the Butterfield Hardware store. “We haven’t seen anything on that yet. I’ve gone to the warehouse and supplies are in the negative thousands.”

Tatge said he’s seeing more demand for household staples, including basic items such as vinegar, which has made resupplying for his customers difficult in recent weeks.

“Just two weeks ago, on my delivery, I had two pages of out-of-stocks,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

It’s the same for grocers across the state, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. Grocery store owners, distributors and industry experts haven’t seen the kind of demand for groceries on this level.

“These sorts of shortages typically happen on a regional level,” Pfuhl said. “If (there’s) a natural disaster, flooding, hurricanes, things like that, then maybe we see this kind of thing. But these shortages are happening nationwide.”

Industry analysts say the U.S. is in no danger of a mass food shortage any time soon. Rather, there’s such a demand for groceries that manufacturers and suppliers are having a hard time adjusting the supply chain to meet consumer needs.

U.S. food imports such as grains and rice are in short supply as trading partners are dealing with their own virus-related manufacturing issues. Companies are having difficulty packaging products normally reserved for the restaurant industry for grocery stores. And the farming operations that supply restaurants suddenly find themselves without a buyer, meaning their crops or animal products will either need to be stored or destroyed.

Agricultural workers and food processing plants are still operating throughout the country, though the spread of the coronavirus is causing several companies to rethink their production. All of those factors will affect what grocery stores offer later this year.

Many grocers are waiting to see how plant shutdowns, such as the recent closure of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will affect the food supply chain. JBS USA said April 20 it was closing its sprawling Worthington pork plant, laying off more than 2,000 workers. And Tyson Foods recently closed several plants in Iowa.

Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp. reported April 22 several employees tested positive for COVID-19 at a Jennie-O turkey plant in Willmar. The company announced April 24 it would temporarily close two turkey plants in that city.

Though the closed plants account for a sizable amount of U.S. meat production, the country still has hundreds of millions of pounds of frozen meat waiting to be sold. Critics say that supply would run out quickly if a majority of meatpacking operations shut down, but some of the products in those plants are already flooding the market — Pfuhl said the restaurant industry is a majority buyer for bacon and pork bellies, which should be easy to find now that restaurants are closed or partially operating.

In other words, people will still have plenty to eat, even if they can’t always get what they want.

Still, industry laborers and politicians alike want more concrete plans to address virus treatment in rural areas with food processing plants. Minnesota’s U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar were among 36 senators who have sent a letter to the Trump administration asking for information on preventing the virus from affecting the U.S. food supply.

On a smaller scale, the ongoing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 add more headaches to grocery businesses already dealing with supply issues.

Recently, as Tatge was busy receiving a shipment of goods, he got a call from a supplier — recent tornadoes in the South forced a Little Debbie snacks plant to close. The supplier told Tatge he’d still get his next shipment, but future orders could be tough.

Minnesota’s agriculture and food experts are doing what they can to ease some of the supply burdens. Pfuhl said the grocers association is busy working with state officials to connect rural stores to farmers who normally participated in farm-to-school or farm-to-food shelf programs.

“We’ve even seen some of our grocers working with restaurants, offering a favorite soup or product that restaurant makes for sale in the store,” she said.

And some producers are hard at work adapting to consumer demand. Suppliers say beer manufacturers are buying up plenty of aluminum to offer more cases to shoppers because there’s little need for bottle-packaging for bars.

Mathistad Warner said customers have been patient with her and her husband, Mark, who only decided to add a grocery section to their store a few months ago. Yet she’s surprised by how volatile the supply chain has been this spring, and she’s unsure how the current shortages will play out for her family’s grocery business.

“It’d be different if we had done this for a few years,” she said. “This first year has been a wild ride thus far.”

Tatge is confident people will weather the coronavirus crisis, but he doesn’t know what that will mean for his store shelves over the next few months.

“Everybody’s just kind of on edge,” he said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last. Probably the last time anything like this happened was in the Depression. And that generation is in the rest home and can’t really tell us anything right now.”


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