Planning around supply chain issues
September 18, 2021 7:16 PM   Subscribe

I am seeing more and more supply chain issues. Our preferred grocery store had basically no cheese last time I went. I'm seeing articles like this one. I wonder how bad will it get, what supplies are impacted, and how can I prepare with common sense?

My anxious brain says things like "must get better at gardening in case produce chains are disrupted. Must learn more bean based recipes for meat shortages." I was pretty lackadaisical when the initial pandemic shortages happened because I know it was temporary upheaval due to unexpected demand, but this is more worrying as it sounds like it is getting progressively worse.

I think part of my anxiety is from not fully understanding why. I get staffing shortages and rising lumber prices. I don't get "geopolitical disruptions." There's a NYT article about why it's happening and why it's likely to be long term but I am not subscribed so I can't read it.

My concern is also not knowing what will be short, so I can't stock up on a few extras of it. I'm not big on stockpiling but if cheese is becoming a scarce commodity I have to do something as I will be miserable without it.

How can I figure out what's happening with all of this, how it's likely to affect my family specifically and what to do to plan ahead in consideration of these supply chain issues?
posted by crunchy potato to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You practically need inside knowledge to anticipate trends as "everybody else" is making a run on the market when the news was made public. And if you don't need to, you're ahead of everyone.

You should be keeping a stash of about a week's worth of food plus some durable essentials (shampoo, soap, toilet paper, etc.) any way. Food in the form of dried or canned foods and sufficient water for emergencies should be kept ANYWAY, just for general preparedness. Remember to refresh your stock by rotating your stash, consume some in a meal, replace with fresher items.

I guess you need to inventory what you use, and can't do without, and HOW you *can* stockpile those relatively easily.
posted by kschang at 7:38 PM on September 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

Perhaps the authors are hoping we will pre-order books, increasing the first-day recorded sales of the books they review and advertise, helping them shoot up to "New York Times Bestseller" lists of various flavors.

No, it's a real thing. Librarians are trying to gear up for it because it's a huge deal in terms of getting books people want on the shelves. This twitter thread has been going around explaining some of the issues involved in the predicted book/publishing shortages. Similarly, your library likely has access to the NY Times and can get you a copy of that article, or someone here certainly can.

Some of the rest of it really depends on where you live, what is local, what your local shopping options are (i.e. is your preferred store a big chain, a small local place, etc) and what your other shopping options are. My only suggestions for right now are presuming that international goods will be more difficult to obtain than local goods, assuming there are issues, and that it's never a bad idea to stock up on non-perishables.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 PM on September 18, 2021 [15 favorites]

if you want to do something now? Get a bidet.

They don't have to be expensive; I've been using a portable, hand held bidet for a few years now, every day. I ended up getting one back in 2018, to help me heal up after top surgery. I've been using it ever since nearly every day, and my TP usage has went down at least 50%.

When the landemic hit, I bought a back up travel bidet. But, if bidets run out? You can make your own DIY bidet.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:59 PM on September 18, 2021 [8 favorites]

If shortages occur, having and eating lots of beans is a good idea. They are inexpensive, keep well, and provide good nutrition.

If shortages don't occur, having and eating lots of beans is a good idea: they have high protein and fiber and low carbon footprint.

Shelf-stable cheeses are also a decent idea either way.

Do you have a good pantry area? You might feel better if you spend some time making up a little closet or cabinet to hold this extra food that it seems you want.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:01 PM on September 18, 2021 [8 favorites]

* At r/PrepperIntel, people post about shortages in their area, among other topics.

* Here's an article about localizing your supply chain, which can help.
posted by NotLost at 8:11 PM on September 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is the most comprehensive collection of articles and posts about this matter that I have seen. It was compiled by Doctor Matthew Hockenberry who is a professor specializing in supply chain interactions.
posted by crazyray at 9:55 PM on September 18, 2021 [18 favorites]

One major supply chain issue is packaging, I don't have a link but last year milk powder became completely unavailable in NZ (which is crazy as we make ~5% of global milk powder), because the package manufacturer in Asia was disrupted; there was no MP for ~8 months.

Yes we have a pet food shortage here now too, and a building supplies shortage, some undersupply, some covid regs as we have Delta in Auckland and Auckland is in Level 4 - a hard lockdown to hopefully make sure.

In many countries/states there are severe labour shortages, the UK is largely mis-management/racism/BrexIdiocy; Australia and NZ have always depended on tourists travelling long-term and people coming to work on 5-10 year contracts for many horticulture jobs, many people come back year after year and become very skilled.
posted by unearthed at 10:20 PM on September 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think one important thing is to build flexibility into your eating/consuming plans, and stockpile anything you can’t or don’t want to be flexible around. I’ve had issues getting my preferred cleaning products since the start of the pandemic, for example, but I realized I don’t really care what kind of toilet bowl cleaner I use so I just got whatever random brand they had at the grocery store when I needed more. On the other hand, I stocked up on Scrubbing Bubbles at Costco and had to try several stores across a couple of weeks to get Windex recently.

How essential is cheese to your diet? Are you OK substituting different veggies into your favorite recipes, or using frozen or canned instead of fresh? Do you have any shelf stable foods you really don’t want to do without that you can stock up on a little? How willing are you to visit multiple stores to get what you want, or wait a few weeks or longer to get a particular item?
posted by MadamM at 10:22 PM on September 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

Here's an archived link for the NYT article I think you reference in your question, "The World Is Still Short of Everything. Get Used to It," from Aug. 30. (I don't subscribe to the Times, either; using the keywords you mention, I found the article via Google Chrome search, and clicked "About This Result". Then I copied & pasted the article's address into's save page, which created the non-paywalled link. Describing the process for future articles of interest.) The closing paragraphs of the article:

Ordinarily, the peak demand for trans-Pacific shipping begins in late summer and ends in the winter, after holiday season products are stocked. But last winter, the peak season never ended, and now it has merged with the rush for this holiday season — reinforcing the pressure on factories, warehouses, ships and trucks.

“We have this vicious cycle of all the natural human instincts responding, and making the problem worse,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “I don’t see it getting better until next year.”

posted by Iris Gambol at 10:35 PM on September 18, 2021 [15 favorites]

I think one important thing is to build flexibility into your eating/consuming plans,

I was going to say this too. You mentioned "Must learn more bean based recipes for meat shortages" and I don't see any reason to do that in advance - you can learn a recipe just as well if a shortage ever exists as you can before it does - but if you're used to eating in a very specific way, or cooking only a limited repertoire, then it can be a good project in general to learn to expand your options to the point where eating or cooking differently for a while starts to feel like no big deal, and like you could get a good meal out of pretty much anything. On that note, if you do want to stock up on anything food-related, I'd start by making sure I had a nice broad selection of spices and long-lasting condiments to work with, since that helps with the whole flexibility thing.

Unless you love gardening, you could try signing up for a CSA for local produce.
posted by trig at 1:47 AM on September 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm vegan, and beans and rice are daily foods for me. When the pandemic first hit, rice became impossible to find and the company I got beans from started price-gauging on Amazon. I realized that my normal food was everyone else's crisis food. I bring this up because it might not be that easy to get beans and rice if there's a meat shortage.

Beans are very shelf stable though. Dried beans last basically forever, and canned beans last for a long time. So if you think beans are in your future, you might want to start buying them now. And while it's true that you can wait to follow a recipe for beans until you need to, if you start trying them out now, you might find some recipes you love so it seems less like a punishment food if you're eating them because meat isn't available. There are tons of great vegetarian chili recipes - that might be a good place to start.

I have heard some stories of people who bought lots and lots of beans and then didn't really get into using them and now feel stuck. That's another reason it might be good to integrate them into your diet once or twice a week. So they don't seem weird. If you want to go the dried beans route, an Instant Pot is a lifesaver. I cook large amounts and freeze them in Mason jars so I have them on hand when I need them.

Random tip: I read a long time ago to put flour in the freezer for 24 hours to kill any bugs. I do that with flour and all grains and never get bugs. Of course, I can't prove that's why.

Also, I'm wondering if you can learn to make at least some kinds of cheese. I know nothing about this or how hard it is, but I do see some recipes online. Just a thought.
posted by FencingGal at 5:23 AM on September 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

A note on rice: White rice keeps for a very long time if stored properly (years). Brown rice on the other hand can go rancid within months.
posted by storybored at 7:47 AM on September 19, 2021 [7 favorites]

It is difficult to tell what will be impacted because supply chains are so varied, and have taken advantage of a global marketplace, but international trade is challenging at the moment. In addition, market gardens (ie that grow produce commercially) are still very dependent on manual labour and the agricultural labour markets in North America, Australia and part of Europe are dependent on short-term immigration.

As others have said, the biggest help is probably to be able to be flexible about what you consume. So being able to make meals you like from a range of kinds of different ingredients depending on what is available, and being able to get by without things that you need. As you probably remember, toilet paper is not easily substituted and quirks of supply and demand can cause problems. You might have a few other things for which you can neither substitute or do without. But otherwise, there are substitutions for the majority of everyday items, there are lots of different food options, and a few different ways to substitute for toiletries and household cleaning products.

It is probably, yet again, a bad time to run really lean on your groceries. If maintaining a little extra in your kitchen is not possible because you have a tight budget then tapping to a network of friends, and community resources is probably the thing that is most likely to get you through if the shops are bare and you need to eat. There are lots of people I would give an extra loo roll, or a few tins to, to tide them over.

In terms of what to stock up on, I think actually it's the things that you eat normally. We eat potatoes, bread, cheese, coffee, and oat milk all week long. Having extra on hand wouldn't go to waste if it can be stored. We also normally sometimes eat cans of tuna, baked beans and soup and so maybe replenishing those when we use the penultimate rather than last one. We really don't eat eg rice very often, so there's little point in stocking up on it beyond what we would normally buy - if we can't get it in the shops then we'll happily just eat something else; if there are no rice shortages but shortages of other staples we can buy and eat rice; and if there are no shortages such that we'd be relying on rice then there's no point in having a lot of rice it will take us a long time to eat.
posted by plonkee at 9:20 AM on September 19, 2021

If you are near an agricultural area, get to know a dairy farmer. I get milk and cheese from a tiny dairy about 90 miles from my house. I have a friend that lives near there and comes in to town once a week to work and brings the milk. If you live where there are urban chicken coops, you can get eggs from the neighborhood. We set up egg selling and buying on NextDoor. A few people in town are keeping a few goats so I expect there will be goat milk and cheese available.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:11 AM on September 19, 2021

Also, if there are things you could order in bulk, look into ways to order them online directly from farms. I buy dried beans and wheatberries from Palouse now. I use a lot of cranberries in smoothies, and they're only available seasonally, if at all, so now I get them frozen from Fresh Meadows Farm. I'm sure there are lots of other places like that if you search. If you're willing to try nut-based cheeses, there are places that sell them online. My omnivore friends have liked them when we've had them in restaurants. (Vegan cheese used to be terrible, but it's gotten much better, and some of it is really good now.)

White rice keeps for a very long time if stored properly (years). Brown rice on the other hand can go rancid within months.

This is why it's a good idea to store brown rice in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a year, or the freezer, where it should be good for two per this article. Whole wheat flour is best stored in the freezer too.
posted by FencingGal at 10:32 AM on September 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you have pets, stock up on their food and supplies. We're a lot more adaptable than they are.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:50 AM on September 19, 2021 [15 favorites]

Yeah seconding Jacqueline. Our local grocery stores have basically been barren of the preferred brand of cat food since March 2020. I'm trying to integrate more homemade food into their diets in case it gets even harder to obtain canned cat food online. At least if there's some crisis shortage of it then they would be willing to eat chicken plus necessary supplements (do your research, ask your vet, obvs). Hopefully meat continues to be widely available...

I feel like cats are the worst for this since they absolutely need a carnivorous diet-- at least dogs can branch out into things like rice and potatoes. We try to always keep a huge stock of canned cat food around.
posted by whistle pig at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sept 17 article in LA Times on the "floating traffic jam" delaying containers full of stuff:
.... dozens of giant cargo ships anchored outside the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, waiting for a chance to dock and unload their goods. Typically, only a handful of ships might be forced to wait like that, or they wouldn’t have to wait at all....

Although it’s only September, this is the all-important shipping season for products headed to U.S. merchants’ holiday shopping displays — toys, electronics, sporting goods and ugly Christmas sweaters.

Normally, the global supply chain of international goods movement is like a light switch on a wall: It just works. The products consumers want are available. No one thinks about how. No one thinks about the light switch — until it doesn’t work.

And right now, the global supply chain isn’t working. It’s been snarled by a host of factors: the pandemic, booming consumer demand, raging storms, shortages of cargo ships and containers as well as a lack of people willing to drive trucks or stock shelves in warehouses and retail stores for the wages offered.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:59 PM on September 19, 2021

Same LA Times article:
Even the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which make up the fastest seaport complex in the U.S. and move more cargo in a month than many ports handle all year, can’t work fast enough. The neighboring ports, which last year handled nearly a third of U.S. imported products, are moving record numbers of steel cargo containers, most from China and other Asian countries.

“We’re getting into the full peak season,” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the nation’s largest seaport, the Port of Los Angeles. “Every node of this supply chain is maxed out.” A record 89 cargo ships were anchored or drifting offshore Thursday afternoon, waiting to enter the L.A. and Long Beach ports to be unloaded, according to the Marine Exchange Vessel Traffic Service.

Seroka described cargo containers piled up on the docks by the thousands, waiting for a ride on the short railroad line within the ports that takes the steel boxes to their next trip by transcontinental rail. Others are driven by trucks to warehouses before they head to retailer shelves. But railroads also are reporting backlogs, which add to product delays, and trucking companies say they don’t have enough drivers. Warehouses and retailers also complain that they can’t get enough workers.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:01 PM on September 19, 2021

I bought a few bottles of caffeine pills out of reaction to the brief coffee shortage during the initial pandemic grocery run, as boy that sucked. The internet says they're shelf stable for about five years.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:59 PM on September 19, 2021

We find this useful when buying bulk storage goods --

We eat x units per month, and it stores for y months: x*y units is the MAX amount we should have in storage. Use this to not overbuy! stale or rancid food is grody.

There are z months between shopping trips: x*z units is the MIN amount we should have in storage. For example, z is 1/4 for drugstore/basic grocery things now but was 1 during the worst of our pandemic, and is 12 for some things we buy from a farm at harvest.
posted by clew at 4:32 PM on September 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

crunchy potato, you may find siderea's guides on preparing for the pandemic useful, especially the sections on food and household supplies. I think much of what she says is freshly applicable; the supply chain crunches happening now are problems that a lot of people thought might happen last year.

Consider your medications and see whether you can get an extra month's worth of any prescription meds you take, as a buffer in case of disruption. This may cost extra but may be worth it for peace of mind.

Other (non-food) household supplies to consider: batteries, light bulbs, soap, matches, dish sponges.

Supplies of things you depend on that are made out of paper or wood -- paper bags, cardboard, etc. -- may be disrupted for the reasons Jessamyn mentioned above.

And if there is an appliance, machine or piece of furniture in your life that is beginning to fail, now would be a good time to proactively seek out any spare parts you will need to repair it when it does fail. Spare parts to fix cars and other machines are getting harder and harder to find.
posted by brainwane at 9:43 AM on September 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Threadreader link for crazyray's great Twitter link to Dr. Hockenberry's round-up of supply chain interactions articles and posts.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:40 AM on September 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Whistle pig and other cat-owners cooking homemade. The thing your cat can't do without is taurine. If you can find them buy and freeze diced hearts (lamb, beef, venison etc) so you have some to supplement whatever else you're giving them. They don't need a ton, but it's non-negotiable for them.
posted by esoteric things at 6:10 PM on September 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

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