As long as you follow health expert guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19, a food shortage is highly unlikely.

Christine Byrne
March 25, 2020
Getty Images / Mint Images

Most of us have been told since we were young that when faced with a crisis, it's important not to panic. Stay as calm as possible, and follow whatever procedures and guidelines might exist. Of course, now that we're in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are having trouble following this advice.

One place our collective panic is glaringly obvious? The grocery store. Millions of Americans have stocked up on food and other essential home items (namely disinfectants, sanitizers and toilet paper) for fear of a potential shortage, or limited access to these things in the near future. Some stores are limiting the number of these items you can buy now, others like Costco have stopped accepting returns on these items in an attempt to reduce panic buying.

We asked experts whether or not there was any real threat of a food shortage, and what individuals can do to help prevent one. They all said that a food shortage is extremely unlikely, provided we all take proper precautions: measures like social distancing and proper hygiene are crucial to making sure our country's food supply doesn't falter. Here's what you should know and what you can do to help.

When COVID-19 guidelines were first announced, many people overbought food and other supplies, making it seem like there was a shortage.

We have a demand problem right now, not a supply problem. That's why you may be seeing empty sections of the grocery store. The federal government first released guidelines aimed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus on March 16. Since then (and before then, in some cases), many state and local governments have advised people to stay home as much as possible, keep at least a 6-foot distance between themselves and other people, and practice good hygiene (that means wash your hands often, and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily). And, several states have ordered the closure of nonessential businesses.

All of this is absolutely necessary to flatten the curve of the virus, according to public health experts. You might be wondering: Is it OK to leave home for a trip to the grocery store? Do these shutdowns mean that the food supply chain will shut down, too? As a result of this confusion, many people are overbuying essentials at the grocery store, for fear of running out.

"Over the last several weeks we have seen increased demand across our stores for products such as disinfectant cleaners and wipes, bar and liquid soaps, water, paper products, cough/cold, over-the-counter medicines and other key products," says a representative from the grocery chain ShopRite. Sales of nonperishable foods like grains, beans and canned goods have also soared in recent weeks, and pictures of empty supermarket shelves are everywhere on social media (and likely in your private group chats).

Related: How to Make Your Own Sanitizing Solution at Home

Right now, there's no actual threat of a food shortage.

"Food production suppliers and companies are not reporting any shortage of food supplies across the country—so while you grocery shop, it's not necessary to hoard food or other grocery store items,' says Tamika Sims, Ph.D., director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council. "Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stated that it is monitoring our food supply situation closely in collaboration with federal and state partners. The agency is also ready to assist in government-wide efforts to ensure all Americans have access to food in times of need," she says.

And, since grocery stores are considered essential businesses, there's no need to worry that they will close. "There is no expectation that stores will run out of food or that grocery stores will close," says Shelie Miller, Ph.D., associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

It's really important not to hoard food right now.

Empty shelves aren't a result of a shortage, but of panic-induced overbuying. And even now that grocery stores know to expect higher sales, they can't just start stocking more stuff. Miller, who studies food supply chains and food waste, explains that "grocery stores are designed for the normal pattern of consumer food shopping behavior." Things like shelf space, the number of workers in a store, backroom storage capacity, and the size and number of loading and shipping docks available are specifically planned to meet a certain flow of goods. "Regional distribution centers are similarly designed and optimized," she says.

The problem is that the new coronavirus has massively disrupted our shopping patterns, which throws a wrench into these well-designed grocery store systems. "As one example, a grocery store can only unload a given number of trucks in a single day," Miller says. "An empty shelf does not indicate that there is a shortage of that item. Instead, it is much more likely that the current system of distribution has been unable to adjust to the major changes in consumer shopping behavior." And because distribution centers have similar limitations, it's not as simple as a store just putting in more frequent orders.

"To maintain a continuous supply of food and to reduce the risk of coronavirus contamination, it is recommended that families shop for what is needed for one week," says Olga I. Padilla-Zakour, Ph.D., professor of food processing at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food Venture Center. The CDC does recommend that people in higher-risk groups have a two-week supply of food, and other essential supplies like medication, on hand. But, lots of friends, family and neighbors across the country have been stepping up to do grocery drop-offs for those who are unable to leave their house—so you likely wouldn't run out of food.

Practice social distancing and proper hygiene at the grocery store.

"The [food] supply chain includes farmers and ranchers, food processors, food distributors (organizers and shipment drivers), food retailers (stores and all people that work there—this can be stores and restaurants) and the consumers," Sims says. All points on the chain are considered essential and can function as normal under the COVID-19 guidelines. But if employees across the supply chain start getting sick en masse, that could be a problem.

Two important ways to prevent this from happening are to limit your trips to the grocery store, and practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from other shoppers. You've likely heard this already, but just to reiterate: "The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted mainly by person-to-person [contact] through respiratory droplets," Padilla-Zakour explains. "When people are in close contact, defined as less than 6 feet, there is a possibility that respiratory droplets from an infected person can land in the mouths, noses or eyes of nearby people, eventually reaching the lungs where the virus reproduces and produces the lung disease." There's also evidence that the virus can live on surfaces for several hours, so you should wash your hands before you leave home and as soon as you get back, and avoid touching things that you're not buying.

Here are 10 more tips to shop safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miller also notes that while online grocery delivery and pickup are the preferred option when it comes to slowing the spread of the virus, online systems may be unable to keep up with demand in the short-term. It's a good idea to order your groceries online if possible, and stores might expand their capacity to do this in coming weeks or months. For now, though, it's OK to shop in-person as long as you're taking the necessary precautions listed above. And it's worth reminding you again, stay home if you're sick!

Going in with a plan can also make grocery shopping more efficient and less wasteful.

Food waste is a problem under normal circumstances—30 to 40% of food produced in America gets thrown away. And there's reason to believe that overbuying during the pandemic will push this number even higher, since items might go bad before you have a chance to eat them. "Being thoughtful about what you buy saves money and also reduces stress on the food system," Miller says.

She suggests basing your grocery list off of a rough meal plan, plus whatever snacks and treats you'll realistically eat, sticking to that list when you're in the store, and being mindful of how much storage space you have in your fridge, freezer and pantry. Cooking and freezing perishable foods that you can't eat before they go bad will also help reduce food waste and lessen the strain on our food supply (here's how to freeze fresh fruits and vegetables).

If the pandemic lasts for several more months, there is a small chance that certain processed foods will be less available—but this isn't a huge deal.

While there's no viable threat to the overall food supply so long as guidelines are followed, it's possible that you might have a harder time finding your favorite packaged snack several months from now. "Depending on the length of the pandemic ... I could foresee some disruption in the availability of certain types of processed foods," Miller says, "due to closures of facilities that produce processed foods or a shortage of food additives and preservatives," since not all of these businesses and facilities are considered essential. Still, this isn't a foregone conclusion, and relatively few products would be affected.

Bottom line: Keep calm, follow expert advice and only buy what you need.

It's highly unlikely that there will be a food shortage in 2020, since grocery stores and all other points of the supply chain are still functioning normally. That said, hoarding food can deplete grocery store stock and make it harder for other people to get what they need. Failing to follow expert guidelines—stay 6 feet away from other people, stay home as much as possible, and definitely stay home when you're sick—also makes it more likely that the supply chain will be disrupted. So, for the good of all of us, shop smart and only buy what you need.