Why we’re seeing new grocery shortages, and what you can do

Cities around the country are reporting empty grocery store shelves. But this isn’t like last time when basics like toilet paper and bread were nearly impossible to find. As we near the two-year mark of the pandemic, the impact on the food supply chain has only gotten more complex. We explain what’s going on, and offer some tips that can help you find what you need.

By Isabel Brown, Consumer Watchdog Associate
Jan. 14, 2022

As the food industry has adapted since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, many food suppliers and grocery stores had been expecting things would be improving by now. But “Omicron has put a bit of a dent” in that, Vivek Sankaran, CEO at Albertsons Cos, said this week in a conference call with industry analysts. “We would expect more supply challenges over the next four to six weeks … As a business we’ve all learned to manage it, we’ve all learned to make sure that the stores are still very presentable and give the consumers as much choice as we can get.”

But Omicron isn’t the only thing to blame. Labor shortages, severe weather, shipping delays and changes in what foods people are buying make it difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for shortages. 

What foods are out of stock at any given time also seem to vary. Early on in the pandemic, as people were panic-stockpiling basic amenities, items like rice, bread and toilet paper were difficult to find. Now, shortages are affecting everything from mustard to cat food. So if you feel like you’re losing your mind because your favorite brand of pretzels has suddenly disappeared from supermarket shelves, you’re not. Curt Covington from AgAmerica told USA TODAY that “shortages depend on the item, store, and region of the country.” When the pandemic and unpredictable weather meets the complexity of the supply chain, what’s out of stock can also change week to week.

As of Jan. 9, the states with the biggest shortages of food and beverages included Alaska, Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi and West Virginia, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Geoff Freeman, of the Consumer Brands Association, expresses concerns that we could be facing more shortages as the Omicron variant moves through the Midwest, where major packaged food companies like Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. have operations.

Why your favorite foods may be out of stock

Labor shortages and shipping delays may be what first come to mind when you hear “supply chain issues.” But there are some other factors at play that may be causing those empty supermarket shelves.

Changing consumer behaviors

At the CFA National Food Policy Conference in October, Freeman of the Consumer Brands Association explained some of the changes in consumer behavior as a result of the pandemic. When the pandemic began, people started stockpiling. But what he found was that, instead of getting back to “normal” levels once people got accustomed to the pandemic, the heightened level of demand persisted. Consumer demand actually increased by 9 percent from 2020 to 2021, he said. People started buying more, and that has become a new normal.

Not only are people buying more food, but the foods they’re buying have also changed. In addition to more people cooking and eating at home instead of going out, people have been buying more frozen foods and snack foods as they hunker down at home. Changing consumer tastes adds another hoop for the supply chain to jump through.

Panelists also discussed how consumers are more concerned about climate change, which has changed how they buy food. Joseph Clayton from the International Food Information Council cited IFIC’s 2021 Food and Health Survey, which found that seven in 10 consumers say that climate change sometimes influences their purchase decisions. As people grow more weary of climate change, some are changing their diets to be more plant-based. The Food Institute reported that, as a result, the availability of frozen fruit and vegetables has taken a hit.

Extreme weather and climate change

From snowstorms in the Northeast to wildfires in Colorado, extreme weather can not only affect the productivity of food processing plants and make it harder to transport food products around the country, but it can also lead some shoppers to stock up more than usual, which puts more pressure on the supply chain.

The Food Institute reported tomato paste and mustard shortages triggered by droughts in California and Western Canada. As winter storms move through the Northeast and Midwest, more shoppers are complaining of food shortages. Droughts in Canada and the Northern Plains of the United States have led to a sharp decrease in wheat supplies. For the second year in a row, La Niña, a global weather pattern that causes heavy rainfall, is threatening South American corn and soybean crops. 

What foods are in short supply

While food shortages vary widely across different regions, states and grocery stores, here are some of the items that may require more of a scavenger hunt to find:

  • Baby formula 

  • Cream cheese

  • Canned goods

  • Cat and dog food

  • Chicken tenders

  • Potatoes

  • Spinach

  • Pasta

  • Meat

  • Lettuce

  • Eggs

Tips and tricks for getting what you need

Consumers themselves can’t do much to fix systemic supply chain issues. As frustrating as it can be to get all the way to the grocery store only to leave without tackling your entire shopping list, there are still some tactics you can try to find what you’re looking for.

  • Shop local. Smaller stores can pick and choose suppliers, making them more flexible. That isn’t necessarily the case for many big chains.

  • Be willing to substitute. If your favorite brand of juice is out of stock, try switching to a different brand if it’s available. 

  • Order groceries online. You can find out what’s in stock without showing up to the store and being disappointed.

  • Check your favorite store’s weekly ad flyer. Mostly likely, if an item is being advertised, they have it in stock.

  • Call the store where you shop and ask when they get in their shipments for various products. That way you have the best chance of finding the items that you need.

  • Budget for higher prices since grocery costs aren’t expected to go down until mid-2022. The average U.S. household spent $144 per week at the grocery last year, according to FMI, an industry association. That was down from the peak of $161 in 2020, but still far above the $113.50 that households spent in 2019.

  • Plan your meals around the available items. Take stock of what you already have and use it wisely. Waste not, want not, right?