So, here we are, well into month three of physical distancing. Some states are declaring victory and moving to “open for business”, some states are being more cautious. Regardless of the stance of our elected officials, it’s safe to say everyone is justifiably getting a bit antsy. As we watch the news cover the extremely small minority of morons out “protesting” the fact that they can’t go bowling or get haircuts, there are a number of things that are worth reflecting on that actually matter. Since this is a food blog, I’m going to focus on the food stuff.
As I said at the outset, we are in month three of this situation. Yeast is in short supply but we don’t really need yeast. Bread flour, and most flour in general, is still in short supply. I’v been able to find AP flour pretty regularly – there’s usually one or two bags on the shelf – but I go to the store first thing in the morning. The one time I’ve gone in the afternoon when we ran out of dishwashing detergent, the shelves were bare except for some of the more esoteric gluten free flours. I’ve seen whole wheat flour once, and bread flour once. In two and a half months. And stores are enforcing a two bags per customer limit on flour purchases so in theory this is not the result of hoarding.
The strange thing is that in the first few weeks, there was no bread and no pasta on the shelves either so it made sense that there would be no flour as people tried their hands at making pasta and bread. But now bread and pasta have returned with a vengeance but we are still flourless.
It turns out that we have two completely different food supply chains in this country. One caters to consumer purchases packaged goods, and the other to institutional clients like restaurants, schools/universities, hotels, food manufacturers, etc. and for some reason, the systems are set up so that those two streams can never cross (gratuitous and oblique ghostbuster reference intended). So, while we have people wandering the aisles in their masks looking for things that are not available in the stores, we also have farmers who usually sell to the institutional supply chain destroying product because they have no customers.
And, just as they are facing a steep increase in demand for food relief as people lose their jobs, food banks are struggling (that seems too tame a word) as their normal sources of supply have suddenly evaporated as institutional food producers shut down and supermarkets no longer have excess inventory to donate.
Going back to the flour example, it’s very apparent that there is flour available in the broader market: in addition to the return of bread and pasta to the supermarket aisles, our local pizza places have opened up again for carry out and delivery and Dominoes didn’t miss a beat. I have actually resorted to asking restaurants if they would be willing to sell me bread flour. That begs the question: why is “the market” not working to correct the situation? There is obviously demand, and there is obviously supply to meet it, so why is the market not correcting to meet consumer demand?
If you have been wrestling with this question as I have, I suggest you read this excellent article by Michale Pollan. Mr. Pollan has been a long time advocate of getting back to eating actual food in order to have a healthier society, something I agree with. He lays out how we got here, and some changes we should make to improve our food supply.