Will the pandemic cause food shortages?

The news of farmers dumping milk and plowing over produce are hard to reconcile with the equally heartbreaking stories of desperate families queueing in long lines at food banks. The conflicting images have many people wondering why unsold food cannot be redistributed to charities that help the needy, and whether empty grocery store shelves mean America should also brace for a hunger pandemic in some regions. 

One bag of buckwheat on an empty grocery store shelf

The answer is as complex as the food supply chain, Wharton School experts say. But the situation isn’t as worrisome as it appears.

“I don’t think we are going to starve at an aggregate level. There is enough food to feed everyone,” says Senthil Veeraraghavan, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions. “But at the individual level, there is definitely going to be difficultly to access food in some places, for some people.”

The fact that farmers are destroying millions of pounds of perishables is evidence that there is plenty of food in production. It’s the breakdown of supply chains that has left store shelves barren, driving up costs for consumers. 

“We are roughly in balance at the aggregate level, but [there are] incredible disruptions at the micro level,” says Wharton professor Marshall Fisher. “That’s why you see this paradox of farmers throwing away milk and shelves empty of milk. My wife went to Costco this morning to do the shopping, and there was lots of milk and no toilet paper. We see micro disruptions when we go to the store every day, and that’s because the supply chain is very complicated.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.