October 23, 2021

Fortifying the link

Regional food suppliers, processors may prove key to ensuring supply chain stability amid coronavirus

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Matt Dehart of Anderson’s Market on Route 281 takes inventory of his produce Wednesday. Anderson’s stocks its stores using smaller, regional food processors in an industry model that food experts say can avoid disruptions caused when a pandemic such as COVID-19 interrupts production at large, centralized food processors.

Matt DeHart inventories his produce before placing an order as Bryn Carr grabs a bottle of milk from a cooler. The milk was bottled a few miles away.

Nearby, Linda Spencer waits in a checkout lane at Anderson’s Market in Homer next to a freezer full of meat processed in Moravia and Syracuse. And a woman across the store examined shelves of flour from Auburn, honey and maple syrup from Locke.

Bison from Scott, cheese from Genesee County. Products from Skaneateles, the Adirondacks — other places that have one thing in common: They’re not from a major food processor, many of which were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic and forced to re-open by presidential order.

It’s a business model that owner De- Hart inherited from his father-in-law, Bill Anderson, and from his own family, which owned a grocery on Main Street in Homer for years. “Everything I can source locally, I try to get locally,” DeHart said.

And all the regional food sources — USDA-certified butchers and meat processors, dairy products, cheese makers and more — are smaller producers that don’t concentrate large numbers of employees in one place.

Many stores have some products from regional producers — a brand of hot dogs, or spiedie marinade or something to feed regional tastes. But stores that rely heavily on large, national processors for products are beginning to see products in short supply, with limited options for customers and even higher prices because of the pandemic.

It’s a problem that was discussed in 2008 when the H5N1 avian flu virus, otherwise dubbed “bird flu,” spread across the world, killing 243 people. It raised concerns about how the food supply chain would be affected by a pandemic — what America now sees as COVID-19 has killed 270,000 people around the world, more than 75,000 in the United States alone.

Systemic, and personal, change

“Once a pandemic begins, the nation’s entire food supply chain will be hugely disrupted — everything from manufacturing to packaging to retailing,” said Regina Phelps, the founder of consulting company Emergency Management and Safety Solutions in an 2008 article for Food Safety Magazine. “The availability of goods will be unpredictable, and in the worstcase scenario, some products may be completely unavailable.”

The ending would be a significant disruption to the food supply chain, she said after speaking to six top food service and agricultural companies during a roundtable discussion on pandemic preparedness.

That disruption is being felt now in the U.S., which is about three months into the coronavirus pandemic, which experts estimate could last months,even a year or more, with waves throughout it.

The issues hit every part of the food supply chain, too, from farmers getting cattle to a processor who is overwhelmed and backlogged due to shutdowns and employees getting sick. The result in Cortland County is a reduction in what meat is available, how much one can buy and price increases.

Some experts said the food distribution system needs to change, but to help that change along, shopping habits need to change, too.

The disruption

“The nature of the shock is unprecedented and multiple,” said Miguel Gomez, an associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and fellow at the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University.

A number of actions are hitting the supply chain. Consumers are stockpiling food as they stay home more and cook meals. The food service industry — restaurants and schools — has seen a drastic reduction. School buildings closed, although some still deliver meals and many restaurants either closed or operate at reduced capacity with pickup and delivery options.

“All of a sudden, all food demand is concentrated in supermarkets,” Gómez said. “This causes bottlenecks because supermarkets are not prepared to meet the sudden increase in demand.”

That creates major disruptions to the processing facilities, which must now switch to producing more products for supermarkets, which means different packaging and labeling.

On top of that, “at least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus,” states an article by USA Today. “Some of those workers also have infected others, which is included in the count. At least 45 workers have died.”

The job is labor intensive, Gomez said, with people working in close proximity where there is an increased risk for spreading the virus.

When the large processing facilities shut down, it forces others to work harder to keep the supply up, but with multiple facilities closing people can expect their shopping habits to change.

Expect different shopping

Shoppers in the greater Cortland area should expect items to become temporarily out of stock as plants shut down because of outbreaks and reopen after cleaning.

Gomez said it is also likely that there will be a reduction in variety as processors determine which items it can easily, sufficiently and quickly get to market.

Anderson’s is beginning to see that, said owner Matt DeHart.

“Up to this point, things have been hit or miss,” he said. “The demand is really high. Going forward, there’s going to be some supply issues. Even the local packers that we buy from, they’re having difficulty.”

DeHart said he spoke to one of his meat processors, Owasco Meat Co. Inc. in Moravia, and noted they have been inundated with calls to get products to be processed and packaged. But the facility can process only so much at a time. The company couldn’t be reached for comment.

But because of the hit to the supply chain, DeHart said Anderson’s is finding other sources of meat to sell, although it’s getting harder to find retail-sized packaging.

“There is some product out there that is in wholesale-sized packaged,” he said.

He said to help with the shortages in meat the store, like many others, he will limit quantities people can purchase.

“I think everybody understands that this is an unprecedented thing,” he said.

Shoppers can expect to switch their menu plans to match what’s available, said Gomez. And if meat becomes too expensive, they could also turn to non-meat protein sources.

Changing the national system

“In the longer term, we need a strategy to diversify food production and post-farm activities so the industry is not so concentrated, but is still able to be efficient so that food does not become too expensive,” Gomez said. “The support to the development of regional food systems may help here.”

But developing regional food systems isn’t that easy, either. The farmers may have the product, but, but it’s less likely you’ll find a local processor who is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell the product, and do it on a scale that would match large companies.

“Cortland had several butchers that were able to do that years ago, but people get out of it because it’s hard to compete with the prices of the big places,” DeHart said, and there must be a symbiosis between the local stores and local processors.

One of the closest places to Cortland County is Owasco Meat Co. That’s where Anderson’s gets its products.

DeHart said scaling back government regulations during a pandemic could allow for more local processors to open. But that’s not a long-term fix.

Schaffs Meat Inc. in Harpursville has the ability to be USDAcertified but owner Terry Schaff said he doesn’t foresee getting that certification any time soon because while he’s doing more business, that’s not guaranteed once the pandemic is over.

“When there’s a lot of demand for something, everyone jumps on the wagon,” he said, but after that, the cost to run a facility under government regulations is too much. Competing against the big names like Tyson or Smithfield isn’t practical.

Changing the national system drastically to allow for better stabilization during pandemics also relies on shoppers changing their habits, said Susan Williams, the assistant director at Seven Valleys Health Coalition, who has been working for years to improve access to healthy food.

Buying local

“There are a number of nascent businesses trying to connect our farm community directly to consumers in our two counties,” Gómez said. “We as consumers need to support them because this support may lead to business innovations that will allow us to have a more resilient food system, locally.”

In fact Carr, who was shopping at Anderson’s, is active with Southern Tier Farm Fresh, a coalition of farmers across 15 counties, including Cortland, to sell food directly to consumers through an online marketplace.

DeHart sources his meat like his produce, and advocates doing it for the entire retail food stream, the industry responsible for connecting the farm to your kitchen.

The produce industry, he said, revolves around hubs, hundreds of them across the nation, including one in Syracuse, where farmers can wholesale their products and retailers like DeHart can buy them.

“There are times like this you have to re-evaluate what is the best way to do it,” DeHart said.

For Spencer, of Homer, the store and its products are more about supporting her community than re-imagining the entire food industry. “Any time you buy local, it’s better,” she said. “It’s fresher. I’ve always shopped local.”

But the mechanism that lets her do that also helps secure the nation’s food system, by creating many, many different sources of food, rather than a handful of gargantuan producers.

Spencer is on one end of the chain; Carr is on the other. She pulled a bottle of Trinity Valley milk out of the cooler because she’s a farmer — Wensleydale Cottage Farm on Route 41 in Scott — but her cow isn’t producing at the moment.

Trinity Valley, like her homepasteurized milk, has milk where the cream floats to the top.

“Trinity Valley is the closest to my own,” Carr said. She looked over the beef, too, processed by Owasco Meats in Moravia, because she’s freshly out at the farm, too.

You have options

But to change the system, people must change how they buy their food, Williams said. It may take a little more effort, but it will help the businesses locally and the economy.

One thing Seven Valleys is doing to help make it easier for people to buy local food is by creating a county food map, which they are trying to put on their website as well. Right now people can find it on the 211 website. They’re also trying to make it easier for the Central New York Food Bank to have access to producers to get products.

She said Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County also got grant funding and created a local food website that includes a searchable database of all local producers.

She said the positive thing is that the pandemic may push more people to consider where their food comes from.

“There are a lot of distributors that have made a conscious effort to have a lot of their products,” Williams said. “The greater financial security our local farmers have, the better for our community. We here are so much more fortunate that there is a place to turn to and say, what are my options?”