It’s difficult to miss the empty shelves in groceries or big-box stores, and even more difficult to dismiss the feeling of uneasiness that follows. Virus outbreaks at major meat-packing plants have occurred, further stressing an already struggling supply chain and adding a new level of uncertainty for consumers. The familiar comfort and trust in well-stocked grocery-store shelves is faltering as folks look to stores for supplies only to discover an inability to fulfill their needs.

Grocers say they’re still able to provide much of what residents want, but they’re seeing a growing run on everything from milk to eggs to even flour as supply chains and food manufacturers reckon with the ongoing effects of COVID-19.

“This is our 40th year, and I think I have not ever seen the amount of out-of-stock items that I’ve seen lately,” said Michael Tatge, owner of The Market in Madison Lake, Minnesota.

Rural grocers tell similar stories. Canned foods and non-perishables such as rice and pasta were in hot demand for a while. The price of eggs recently increased, provided a buyer could find a supplier that had some. And don’t even think about trying to get cleaning supplies shipped, let alone toilet paper.

“Toilet paper, hand wipes, sanitizer, all that kind of stuff we’re still waiting on,” said Barb Mathistad Warner, co-owner of the Butterfield Hardware store in Minnesota. “We haven’t seen anything on that yet. I’ve gone to the warehouse and supplies are in the negative thousands.”

Tatge said he’s seeing more demand for household staples, including basic items such as vinegar, which has made resupplying for his customers difficult in recent weeks.

“Just two weeks ago, on my delivery, I had two pages of out-of-stocks,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Farms adjust to changes

Small farms across the Midwest are rising to the challenge and adjusting to new needs on the fly. For most small farms innovation is part of daily life. Producers have adapted with the addition of options and services they may not have previously provided, such as website ordering and drive-up options for pick up. Since small and medium producers have greater agility, those adaptations have proved incredibly useful to both the producers and the public.

Local producers have a stronger ability to connect with their communities to address concerns. Another advantage of locally produced food in this time filled with worries of transmission is fewer “touch points,” fewer handlers and overall less obstacles with labor. Most small- to medium-scale operations don’t depend on large commuting workforces. Many of those working the farms live there.

“Our connection with local farmers and suppliers has already helped us adjust in many ways to these new challenges, putting us in a great position to meet demands moving forward,” said Crystal Halvorson, general manager of the Menomonie Market Food Co-op in Wisconsin. “I think that we’ve weathered this better than huge conventional stores because our supply chain is smaller. We have had some out-of-stocks and panic buying of some key items, such as eggs and flour.

“However our shelves have never been shopped bare as you see in so many photos. While national distributors ran out of or placed order limits on those items, we were able to call some of our local vendors for an extra delivery, which kept our shelves full with minimal disruption. We have been fortunate enough to have a great relationship with some local vendors who have helped us when we’ve had shortages. We have some real heroes among our local vendors.”

Even larger-scale grocers are finding added support and success from working with local farmers. Wisconsin’s Festival Foods has had success in maintaining egg-stock levels thanks to connections with local suppliers.

“At Festival Foods we actively look to support local suppliers whenever possible,” said Robb Pretasky, natural-foods director for Festival Foods. “We carry a fair amount of local products in our ‘natural’ department. Our No. 1 local focus in the natural department has been local eggs. There have been egg-supply shortages nationwide, so it has been helpful to be able to talk one-on-one with the local suppliers to get their outlook on market conditions. Local egg sales have jumped considerably. We are proud to be able to support their business and serve our guests by getting them the products they need.”

Supply chain falters in pandemic

The complex and global food-supply chain contains countless links that are usually concealed to everyday citizens making their way through grocery-store aisles. But with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the world to a standstill, long-hidden cracks in the system were suddenly being uncovered and exposed for all to scrutinize, revealing gaping holes.

For decades the population has reaped the most obvious consumer-facing benefit of the “just enough, just in time” food system – inexpensive foods. Consumers have come to expect it as the status quo. But one of the hidden costs, amidst many others, is a loss of resilience. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough food. It’s that the system that was always relied upon to move food from point A to point B has now slowed or stopped. Those disruptions are due to a wide variety of factors, from a lockdown-induced lack of workers to new restrictions on imports or exports as some nations start restricting exports of internally produced food.

Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, said distributors and industry experts haven’t seen before this kind of demand for groceries.

“These sorts of shortages typically happen on a regional level,” Pfuhl said. “If (there’s) a natural disaster, flooding, hurricanes, things like that, then maybe we see this kind of thing. But these shortages are happening nationwide.”

Industry analysts say the United States is in no danger of a mass food shortage any time soon. Rather there’s such a demand for groceries that manufacturers and suppliers are having a difficult time adjusting the supply chain to meet consumer needs.

U.S. food imports such as grains and rice are in short supply because trading partners are dealing with their own virus-related manufacturing issues. Companies are having difficulty repackaging products normally reserved for the restaurant industry for grocery stores. And the farming operations that supply restaurants suddenly found themselves without buyers, meaning their crops or animal products would either need to be stored or destroyed unless they found different outlets. All those factors will affect what grocery stores offer later this year.

Consider future changes

There’s been extensive discussion about what a return to “normal” will look like, as well as what that new normal should be. Pfuhl said her grocers association is busy working with state officials to connect rural stores to farmers who normally participated in farm-to-school or farm-to-food-shelf programs.

“We’ve even seen some of our grocers working with restaurants, offering a favorite soup or product that a restaurant makes for sale in the store,” she said.

And some producers are hard at work adapting to consumer demand. Suppliers say beer manufacturers are buying plenty of aluminum to offer more cases to shoppers because there’s little need for bottle-packaging for bars.

Decisions made both now and as we move forward, by both the general public and the people in positions of power, will be the determining factors in our country’s ability to effectively feed itself in the future. The silver lining of the current crisis is the blossoming connections to local food people. In the end it’s about setting a clear goal for the future and for the new normal, a goal that will support and empower those who produce our food – especially those local producers who are connected to our communities and have a personal investment in their well-being. With food quite literally being the fuel of our lives, there’s nothing as important as paving the way for a more-sustainable future.

Visit LocalHarvest.org for more information on local producers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Genevieve Crow is a published author and photographer who has spent years weaving stories of travel, adventure, conservation, sustainability, healthy living, do-it-yourself and preparedness for both herself and a wide range of clients and publications. She also works as a primary officer with the Lake to Bay Chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, striving to support and enrich the livelihood of small family farms while promoting rural-community development.