Behind the scenes with grocers

EMPLOYEES AT MIDDLEBURY Natural Foods Co-op, like at other local grocery stores, have worked hard to provide consumers with the foods they want and need during the pandemic, but say that labor shortages and supply chain problems caused by the pandemic have affected all product categories.

The term “supply chain” has been tossed around a lot this year as an explanation for empty grocery store shelves and disruptions to everyday life. It’s easy to understand how upsets to the supply chain might impact consumers: We may go to the grocery store and find it doesn’t have what we’re looking for. It’s annoying, maybe, but seldom catastrophic. But the impact these same disruptions are having on grocers behind the scenes is more elusive, especially on small grocers who lack the robust safety net a large company such as Shaw’s or Hannaford might have.

As March 2022 marked the beginning of the third year of a global pandemic, we’re given the unique opportunity to step back and consider how supply chains connect us, what happens when they break, and how we can respond to global health crises with innovative, sustainable foodways.

The reports from local small grocers are dismal. According to Gail Daha, the Store Manager at Greg’s Market in Middlebury, egg prices went up by $1 a dozen in a week. “Stuff like this just keeps happening,” Daha says, “It’s been a struggle. Because we’re relatively new we didn’t have built-up resources to fall back on. It’s really putting pressure on the bottom line.”

And although the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op wasn’t able to provide specific numbers, the Co-op’s Grocery Buyer Katie Sandberg notes that over the last two-plus years, “it is safe to say that all product categories have seen some impacts… caused by both labor and resource shortages. Long-term reduced resource pull[s,] paired with increased demand, is unfortunately not something that can be easily overcome on a relatively short timeline — even years.”

Greg Prescott, the Co-op’s General Manager (and former Operations Manager), emphasizes that the food retailer experience hasn’t been linear these past two years and that grocers experience anxiety as a result of the instability of the supply chain.

“In the Fall of 2021 through February 2022, the whole supply chain seemed to break down again. It felt like an aftershock to the initial disruption [in Spring 2020]. I really wish I was smart enough to understand what the heck caused this, but I heard many narratives. It was labor, ships stuck in the Suez Canal a year earlier, gas prices, border lockdowns, inflation, politics … Now things seem to be back [to work,] and I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering when we will experience another hiccup.”

Both Daha and Sandberg cite labor as one of the biggest resource deficits impacting the chain. “Labor has been hit by COVID [spread] directly, causing immediate shifts in labor that may not be easily reinforced in a timeframe that would have been most helpful. These needs were sudden, drastic, and mostly hard to fill as they were not permanent job changes, but rather coverage for sickness en masse,” explained Sandberg.

Importantly, labor shortages aren’t always a consequence of mishaps or misfortune. Sometimes, as Sandberg pointed out, labor is intentionally and powerfully withheld.

“We have also seen change through [global and national] strikes or shifts in labor as people reconsider where they would like to sell their labor, how their choices about this might impact their lives directly, and reevaluate what efforts are required of them to get their own needs met.”

With a similar effect, Daha has found that a lot of people don’t want to take the health risks that essential workers have taken on for the past two years, especially when cases were rising. “They didn’t feel safe, which is understandable. We’re right in the middle of it… with the strain of the increased volume of [curbside pick-up and delivery requests,] on top of having people out, it’s really difficult for the people here.”

Along with the Co-op’s focus on sourcing locally, Daha sees local producers as her hope for moving forward. “[Local products] are much more consistent… If we can source locally, we’re far better off, there’s no doubt about it.”

Although not disruption-proof, genuine investments in our local food system have the radical potential to provide much-needed security to small grocers. Local supply chains are dependent on tight-knit communities and interpersonal relationships. Programs like ACORN’s Eat Local VT App and emerging Addison County food hub, as well as the broader Vermont Food Hub Network, which links multiple food hubs across the state and region, have the power to leverage these relationships to allow producers and grocers to compete with the industrial food chain. With a robust support network, small producers and grocers can support each other and resist national and global supply chain disruptions. Sourcing from local producers, in a pandemic or otherwise, gives grocers more security than wholesale food distributors ever could.

Daha experiences this community network daily. “We’re doing our best and hope to connect with more local producers. We do that as much as we can because they take care of us. C&S [Wholesale Grocers, a major national food distributor] will short us because we’re the little guy; Monument Farms will take care of us.”

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