Pamela A. Zeiser By: Pamela A. Zeiser
Associate Professor of Political Science
View profile and Diary

17 Nov 2020 : Empty and Broken

The pandemic’s empty grocery store shelves have disturbed me since the start. All out of proportion, really. Early on, shortages of fresh meat, milk, and eggs were inconveniences, not disasters, because I had other foodstuffs to choose from. I never even ran out of toilet paper. More products are in stock today, though paper goods and cleaning supply aisles remain sparse. I haven’t seen a single Lysol product in at least 8 months. In my area, grocery store shortages are now more random and less vital products, like whipped cream or canned goods. (Although, when one lives in Florida during hurricane season, canned food shortages can be problematic.) A more serious recent problem is backorders at the pharmacy and other difficulties filling prescriptions.        

Early on, when shelves were empty, my mind would flash to pictures of shops in 1980s Soviet Union, which had equally empty shelves (if not the same type of grocery stores). There and then, empty shelves were a result of a broken command economy and an unresponsive government.

Is the here and now any different? I really don’t know much about food distribution networks or grocery store logistics. I have heard of just-in-time inventory, shelf-ready fulfillment, and order to shelf – innovations hailed for increasing profits, reducing the need for warehouse storage, and making it less likely products will sit unsold for any period of time. But at what cost? Are such profit-boosting techniques simply additional harbingers of a broken capitalist economy and a government unresponsive to the needs of citizens? We no longer, for example, have reserves of paper goods or the flexibility to shift production of toilet paper for businesses to toilet paper for homes. We don’t have the reserves or flexibility to prevent long-term food shortages or provide for the people most affected by the pandemic, in so many ways.

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