I live in the mountains of south-central Colorado. I spend my time skiing, climbing, hiking, gardening, scheming, and writing.
You know the phenomenon. You’ve laughed at the phenomenon. A storm is forecasted to hit over the weekend. You go to the grocery store to stock up. Everyone and their mother has already hit the grocery store, and all the bread and milk is gone. Why bread and milk? Is everyone that desperate for french toast? You shake your head and roll your eyes and pick up a carton of gross soy milk (or worse, skim) and some overly expensive sourdough and continue on with your day.
It’s amusing, right? But there’s a specific reason for it, and it’s really quite simple. Grocery stores tend to keep fresh items that have a limited window of quality (for example, bread that could mold or go stale; milk that could go off) only as much in stock as can be sold in that quality window. If they overstock in normal, non-storm weeks, there will be product sitting, unsold, that will (for liability reasons) have to be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the week. Storms (and pandemics) don’t usually get more than a week of firm planning before they strike, and so they don’t typically have a way to quickly get more of those fresh items in stock before the so-called “panic-buying” begins.
I have placed “panic-buying” in quotes because, with some exceptions, it isn’t really “panic-buying” at all--simply people behaving in understandable ways when faced with a potential crisis. For example, there are seven days in a week. Many people work five of those days, and run errands on one of the non-work days. Let’s say that half of the people who work five days per week work Monday-Friday, and run their errands on Saturday or Sunday. If half of the people who work five days per week and run errands on a non-work day run their errands on Saturday or Sunday, that is 25% of the five-day per week population running their errands on those two days. And not everyone saves their errands for a day off, so even some of the non-Monday-through-Friday crowd may run their errands on Saturday or Sunday. And some people do not work, or work more than five days, and for any number of reasons they may choose to do their erranding on Saturday or Sunday as well. So let’s round it out to an even set of numbers: let’s presume that 50% of grocery shopping is done between Monday and Friday, and the other 50% is done on Saturday and Sunday.
Now, a storm is forecast to roll in over the weekend, hitting Saturday morning and continuing overnight into Sunday. Several inches, maybe even feet, of snow are called for. Most of these Saturday and Sunday grocery shoppers would choose to push their grocery shopping early, so as to not run out of food over the snowy weekend. And so now you have a much larger percentage of grocery shoppers shopping on Thursday and Friday, days which in normal times would have had a much lower population shopping them. You also have all those limited-quality-window items that normally would be restocked on Saturday being bought all at once by the Saturday shoppers on Thursday. And that is what leads to you buying that sad carton of skim milk and that too-expensive sourdough rather than your normal 2% and honey wheat.
In early 2020, a virus brought the world to a halt. In early March in the United States, the Center for Disease Control recommended stocking up on food and barricading your family indoors for a while. People were instructed not to go out, not to go to work, to bring everything home and to stay there. And most people did just that. Suddenly, every household in the country was trying to buy two or three weeks’ worth of groceries all on the same day. And when they looked into the cart of the person six feet away from them in line and saw three to four weeks’ worth of groceries, they thought to themselves, will I need that much, too? And so they grabbed whatever else they could off the shelves to throw into their carts.
There was a ripple effect throughout the network of food systems. With everyone shopping at the same time, food could not stay in stock. There was not extra food to be ordered, because pandemics are not planned for in the typical production schedule of bread baking or yogurt making. The people that packed food into containers got sick. The people that drove food from production center to store got sick. The bread and milk phenomenon suddenly grew from a localized chuckle at the way we handle snowstorms to a nationwide panic over the exposure of just how fragile our food systems are. For many, it was the first time they noticed the vast and interconnected network of tiny moving parts that keep us all fed. For some, it was the final answer to a question that had been gnawing at the back of their minds for a while: “What happens when this whole system we’ve built finally fails?”
In our American society, we are more often than not buying food from stores that source the food from production centers that (in turn) source the food from farms. There may be other steps in between, but the point I’m making is that we are typically quite divorced from the source of our food; we do not grow all of our food on our own property, nor do we regularly go to farms to select our produce. Of course some of us do, but the vast majority of Americans do not.