Tips to Navigate a Perfect Storm That’s Threatening Our Food Supply

We were ill-prepared for the COVID pandemic that devastated the food industry with supply chain disruptions, product and labor shortages, and soaring inflation. We simply didn’t see it coming, and we weren’t ready for the ongoing ramifications of this crisis. The biggest learning from COVID is that food businesses must be prepared for any crisis – and ensure their suppliers all along the supply chain are also prepared and resilient.

Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth sailing, post-COVID. Climate change is causing extreme drought conditionsout west, which is harming crops in California and surrounding areas. Floods are washing away precious soil in the Midwest, an area that grows three-quarters of our nation’s corn. And Europe’s record-setting heat is torching vegetation and destroying crops.

Overseas, the Dutch government has mandated a 30 pecent reduction in livestock – a damaging directive that will disrupt the food supply and close one in three Dutch farms. And the ongoing Ukraine/Russian conflict means  six million tons of exports, including grain, are stalled. 

Labor shortages mean food is rotting in shipping containers, warehouses, and trucks because there aren’t enough workers to get them to their final destinations.

This perfect storm of crises is threatening our food supply. Restaurant operators would be wise to take the following steps:

  • Be proactive. Prepare now for future food disruptions by proactively developing backup plans, such as finding alternative food sources. Today, we have a more realistic perspective of what could happen, and we understand that a single crisis can have long-term, widespread ramifications. 
  • Stay informed about current events and industry trends. COVID caught the world by surprise, and we were reactive – instead of proactive – in our response.  A key takeaway is to stay informed about current events (e.g., climate change, the Ukraine/Russia war), learn how these events may impact our industry (e.g., lower production of US crops, disruption in Ukrainian exports), and develop backup plans accordingly (e.g., find alternate suppliers).
  • Depend on local suppliers. Any restaurants that typically receive lettuce from California, corn from Indiana, or grain from Ukraine need to come up with a backup plan, as those goods will likely not be widely available. Consider local farms that can provide produce and/or start growing your own to ensure a continuous supply of fresh foods. Supporting nearby farmers boosts your local economy and means you’ll get fresher products that haven’t had to travel far distances to get to your restaurant.
  • Use tech tools to manage your supply chain. Today’s digital solutions allow you to audit and evaluate your supply chain’s sustainability and resilience. These innovative tools will help you get a better handle on your supply chain, organizing supplier certifications into a system you can see and manage. Tech tools have become much more accessible, affordable, and user-friendly, and there are now modern, high-quality options for restaurants of any size and budget.
  • Rely on vertical farming. Vertical farming is an agricultural process where crops are grown vertically, in controlled indoor environments, rather than in traditional, horizontal rows outside. Vertical farming makes it easier to control elements like light, temperature, and water conditions – and there are no concerns about weather or pests. Growing vertically also uses space more efficiently, allowing for a higher crop yield. Restaurants can easily get fresh, high-quality, more sustainable produce from local (or onsite) vertical farms, bypassing unreliable supply chains. Vertical farms also drastically reduce the use of pesticides and use up to 98 percent less water than traditional farms.
  • Elevate your inventory management. You can’t properly manage your spending if you don’t have a good handle on your inventory. Proper inventory management is essential to knowing what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what you need to order. This exercise can also help you identify – and resolve – issues that are wasting money, like over portioning, over ordering, and theft. Manually conducting inventory can be very time-consuming, labor intensive, and error prone. Using tech tools is a much easier, faster, and more accurate way to conduct this important task.
  • Reduce food waste. In the US, we waste between 30-40 percent of our food supply, which equates to an astonishing 133 billion pounds and $161 billion in waste, according to the USDA. Food waste occurs for many reasons, including spoilage, equipment malfunction (such as faulty walk-in coolers), improper storage (e.g., not holding foods at proper temperatures), as well as over-ordering and over-prepping. Tech tools help eliminate wasted food and money, by allowing restaurants to view sales patterns, track inventory, manage production, avoid overstocking, enhance food safety and quality, and determine areas of wastage. Tech solutions allow organizations to use data – not instincts – to make better, more profitable, less wasteful decisions. 
  • Adjust your menu. Streamline your menu to save money. Use less expensive products that can be used in multiple ways. Replace expensive ingredients with more affordable substitutions. Offer more plant-based meals to reduce costs. Eliminate underperforming items and spotlight your most profitable dishes. Transform yesterday’s leftovers into today’s specials. Now that every penny counts, be creative and resourceful to use every scrap of food.

While it can be unpleasant to think of the “next crisis” right after we navigated COVID, it’s essential to be prepared – just in case. While we hope we won’t have to face additional disruptions anytime soon, plan ahead and you’ll be ready for whatever comes your way.