With the at-home food supply demand growing rapidly in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores and other points of the food supply are facing difficulties under the strain. Food suppliers have the capacity to prepare for seasonal demands, such as candy at Halloween or turkeys at Thanksgiving, but the pandemic has spurred skyrocketing consumer grocery purchases, leaving stores scrambling to pick up the slack.

There are many points of the food distribution process, from farm to fork. Farmers are still producing the same quantity of food; it’s those who are purchasing the supply whose habits are changing. With more people eating at home in reaction to restaurant shutdowns and perceived concerns over contaminated meals, grocery stores are seeing higher demand and restaurants are seeing significantly fewer customers.

Changing Consumer Habits
In recent years, a rising trend in food has been consumers switching to fresh foods, with both health and taste considerations in mind. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, consumers began to switch to bulk and frozen purchases to limit trips to the grocery store.

Frozen foods keep longer and often come in bigger packages for consumers to stock up on for a longer food supply at home. Food manufacturers are facing the burden of finding adequate third-party vendors to effectively manage inventory to supply the stress-induced food purchases and keep up with demand.

Steep Competition
Grocery pickup and delivery service has also grown with the ongoing pandemic. With store supply struggling to keep up with the demand, many consumers are seeing substitutes on to orders or facing shortages of products normally readily available.

Stores are losing market share when they have fewer products available, if other grocers across town have the desired products in stock. The food supply chain will need to find an economical way to meet increased sales, while also balancing the fact that consumer food demand will eventually lessen.

Increased Automation
While the food supply is unlikely to be contaminated from a crowded facility, the health of workers keeping the food plant running must be a top priority. Implementing enhanced airside solutions — such as laminar airflow with adequate outside air, and planning for increased distance between plant employees — decreases the chances of workers getting sick from the coronavirus or becoming affected by another virus or disease that could halt production and endanger lives. Additionally, work breaks will most likely have to be staggered in the future, to limit worker interaction for disease prevention.

With much of the country’s food supply dependent on the ability of plant employees to continue working to process meat and other packaged food, the push toward automation is inevitable. Manufacturers will most likely trend toward developing and implementing machinery to accomplish the same tasks that are normally completed by plant workers, to prevent a food disruption from happening with a future pandemic or other life-altering event.

The food industry is likely to undergo major changes in the coming months and years in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. Food manufacturers will have to determine the right food storage solution for the most cost-effective operation to keep up with consumer demand. The supply chain will likely be shortened, with food manufacturers attempting to limit disruption to food supply with more storage of products on-site, more manufacturer automation, and increased production of frozen and bulk types of food.

Jeremy Klysen brings more than 20 years of experience in project planning, engineering and construction. Jeremy delivers solutions for facilities involved in food and consumer products, specializing in old storage and food distribution facilities.