The Future of Food Delivers

COVID-19 changed how we process, ship and shop for food. What supply chain changes will stay into the future?

By Alexis Kienlen

Illustration by Hudson Christie

COVID-19 changed how we process, ship and shop for food. What supply chain changes will stay into the future?

By Alexis Kienlen

June 14, 2021 •

No one will forget going to the grocery store at the beginning of COVID-19 and seeing empty shelves. It revealed flaws in the Canadian food supply chain. “The food supply chain has become a prominent topic through the COVID-19 crisis,” says Sven Anders, a professor in the U of A’s Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. “It’s bringing something into the public discourse that hasn’t been there.”

Before the pandemic, food just showed up at the grocery store — people didn’t have to think about it. What changes can we expect to play out in stores and kitchens in the wake of the pandemic?

The pandemic created shortages and delays in global and local supply systems, which caused people to wonder just how robust our food supply chains really are. Going backward along that chain from the grocery store to the producers, we find a system of intricate logistics. Every commodity has a different supply chain. It’s exceedingly complicated.

“There’s producers, there are aggregators, or buyers, who can be distributors. The aggregator can also be a packer, like in the meat industry,” Anders says. “A processor aggregates meat from several packers, it arrives in a packing house, where it’s weighed, packaged and shipped to grocery stores.” Sometimes food goes right to the store. Sometimes it goes to a logistics company, such as a trucking company that takes, say, a container of avocados from Mexico to the U.S. border, and then another company takes them to Calgary. Then the avocados might be repackaged or sent to stores directly.

“The products that are the most vulnerable are foods that are delicate by their nature. Anything that has to be handled with care, that can be dented or bruised, would expedite deterioration,” Anders says. Think tomatoes or spinach.

COVID-19 disrupted the food supply chain at every point. People got sick and weren’t able to get the product off the field, and truckers weren’t able to move product to the market. Processing plants for meat are labour-intensive and encompass both slaughtering and cutting; staff at these facilities were sickened across the continent. “Those facilities have people coming together. That’s why these supply chains are more vulnerable to disruptions,” Anders says.

Some meat-packing plants closed for a couple of weeks last spring, disrupting slaughter capacity and leading to a backlog of fat cattle that lasted for months. Anders says that as employees were affected, so were logistics. Highly detailed and computerized grocery logistics weren’t enough to handle the initial crisis because, as you move backward along the supply chain, each link presents potential problems.

When the food supply chain has to react to a global crisis again, Anders predicts, protective measures will be put in place more quickly. “Some protocols are already in place now. Everybody has learned a lesson, so next time the shocks will be less severe,” he says. Companies overcame some hurdles by providing workers with personal protective equipment, dividers between workstations, and staggered breaks and start times. New policies allowed seasonal farm workers to quarantine in hotels after crossing a border.

And in April, the Government of Alberta announced it would vaccinate workers in meat-packing plants, regardless of where individual employees found themselves on other priority lists. It’s a step that, taken early next time, could see food processing facilities open sooner or avoid closures altogether, depending on the crisis.

The pandemic showed us that our sophisticated systems are vulnerable to systemic disruptions. Many consumers turned to support their local producers. “If we were to pay more attention to what’s close by and local, it would insulate us a bit from global shocks,” Anders says. “This isn’t the first time people have promoted ‘buy local.’ ” This time the message resounds, and consumers understand the hardships small producers face.

Ellen Goddard researches consumer behaviour. She tracked news stories and Google trends about local food and found there were significantly more in 2020, trending highest during severe restrictions. “There’s a shift to local, but I’m afraid there isn’t much data yet,” says Goddard, Co-operative Chair in Agricultural Marketing and Business. “The shift was a risk response.” When consumers couldn’t find in-store products, they looked to local producers. As grocery stores’ stocks have improved, demand for local products has tailed off, she says. Also, the pandemic has accelerated Canadians’ desire for online options and the stores’ capacity to make it happen — a trend she predicts will continue, citing consumer research reports.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody who’s buying online is going to continue having their groceries delivered all the time. But people want the option, and they want the option of being able to run into a shop,” she says.

Goddard predicts that most consumers, shaken by the empty shelves, will maintain a larger stockpile of food in their homes than they used to. “People started to carve out a place in their house to stock up on staples. I don’t think that’s going away.”

Further, she says cooking has become a family activity. “There are other benefits to getting your kids involved in cooking. I think we will see more of an interest in basic ingredients.”

People have become more interested in their food, and it’s a reasonable bet that we’ll pay more attention in the future. Some of us are keen to find out where our meat is coming from, even buying direct from farmers. And there’s increased attention to plant-based meat substitutes. “People are interested in cooking and in variety,” Goddard says. “That’s a permanent change.”

Changes in consumer behaviour precipitate in-store changes. “Grocery stores will probably never go back to being dedicated 100 per cent to a just-in-time purchasing pattern,” she says. Just-in-time describes the level of inventory a store keeps. Prior to the pandemic, stores didn’t keep big inventories. Why would they? A phone call could bring more.

“Grocery stores are looking at ways of making sure they have more food in more-distributed places so they can satisfy sudden demands,” Goddard says. “Empty shelves were stressful for them, too.”

The pandemic also revealed problems with intense specialization in our food system. Specializing allows producers to operate on scales of efficiency, producing mass amounts for certain markets. “But the second specialization goes wrong, it comes to haunt you,” Anders says. “I learned about a cucumber producer who used to serve the American market. When COVID-19 closed the border, they had to throw out semi-truckloads full of English cucumbers.

“Because we’ve been specializing to such a high degree, we are dependent on large, long international supply chains, which are prone to all sorts of issues,” he says. While there’s no crystal ball, Anders says the supply chain should move into the post-pandemic world with increased flexibility to pivot between markets and not stick to highly planned systems that fall apart in a crisis.

Anders hopes the pandemic will encourage shoppers to look for local agriculture rather than relying on international markets. But that’s not the only answer. “Here in Alberta, we need these other markets. Otherwise we will eat cabbage, carrots and potatoes all winter.”

Goddard predicts stores will accelerate their quest for reliable distribution systems that can help them through crisis. “Stores will need distribution systems that guarantee them access to more goods,” she says. Those goods include packaged foods with a long shelf life and the typical non-food items you find in a grocery store. She says some chains are already looking at automated warehouses for these products. 

Loblaws, for example, has been working with a tech company that specializes in automated trucks that could deliver groceries locally. Other companies are building automated warehouses. These facilities will be built where the population warrants it, Goddard explains, and automated robots could assemble grocery orders and restock shelves.

Regardless of how it takes shape, the pandemic has inspired and hastened changes to the contents of our dinner plates and how the food gets there.

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