Three weeks ago it was the shortages of toilet paper making big news. That made for plenty of good toilet paper jokes and internet memes, because… well, toilet humor wins the internet!
Thankfully, like migratory birds, toilet paper has now returned to it’s regular nesting grounds on store shelves.
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about (a new virus, unemployment, the economy, homeschooling the kids) — Now we have to worry about the freaking food supply!
In case you missed the news, a number of large meat suppliers have been shutting down this last week; effectively shutting down 25% of U.S. pork processing. Even a large beef processing plant in Washington state was shut down this week, and one of the biggest poultry processing plants in the world has closed. Large newspapers like the Washington Post are suggesting shortages might appear.
I’m not sure it’s going to get that bad, but apparently it’s not just meat processing plants feeling the COVID-19 pandemic – dairy farmers are pouring milk down the drain, and egg producers are killing hundreds of thousands of chickens despite a big increase in demand for eggs.
As a individual consumer who is primarily dependent on others to produce food for me, it’s frightening to see how fragile the food supply chain really is.
When the food runs out, that’s when the shit really hits the fan.
A Fragile Food Chain
Besides the virus, why is all this happening when grocery stores sales are actually up? It largely has to do with the differences between the wholesale and retail supply chains. Restaurants, cruise ships, bakeries, and other large food prep businesses on the wholesale side aren’t buying nearly the amount of food they used to.
For the average person this might sound like a “non-problem”. You’re probably wondering “Well why can’t wholesale producers just sell to retail and then the problem is solved?”
The real world is never so simple. For one, wholesalers are use to producing packages in larger sizes than the average consumer is willing to buy (think 15 dozen eggs at a time, and 100 pounds of pork in one go). They simply can’t just flip a switch and have the machines start producing smaller packaging. Factories take time to reconfigure and retool. New machines have to be ordered, new packaging materials have to be sourced, and employees have to be trained on new machines, and so forth.
There’s also bound to be long-term contracts in-place all throughout the food supply chain. Contracts that are not easily changed.
It’s like a fast moving freight train — When everything works well, it’s quite efficient. But when a car accidentally drives onto the tracks you quickly discover that trains can’t stop on a dime.
This difficulty with the food supply chain got me thinking — Maybe our individual food supply chain shouldn’t be just about efficiency. Sometimes a little redundancy and inefficiency is a good thing.
When Inefficiency Is A Better Solution
In the past, I’ve argued that spending large amounts of money on a garden didn’t make solid economic sense. Generally speaking, gardening produces food at prices significantly higher than what you could buy it for in a retail store.
For the record, I’m not saying everyone is bad at gardening — it’s just that a small home garden will never achieve the incredible economies of scale that make food production so efficient on commercial farms.
Sure, it’s a fun hobby, but I previously saw little point in throwing thousands of dollars into a garden and countless hours of labor just to produce a few hundred dollars worth of vegetables.
Only the low-cost form of gardening I termed “economic gardening” made any kind of sense. Today, I’m changing my tune on this topic, and admitting I was wrong. Yes, I was wrong.
For critical life supporting items (food, water, toilet paper, electricity) it makes perfect sense to maintain some redundancy and inefficiency. Just like if you lived in an area with frequent and severe storms — owning a generator might make a lot of sense even though the power company can produce power cheaper.
Why bother? Because many of the essential services and supply chains we rely on in our modern society are actually quite fragile. The current COVID-19 pandemic proved this to me. A natural disaster (or another pandemic) can easily disrupt any essential service… just like we saw this past week.
I don’t know about you, but I like having food to eat, water to drink, and electricity to power the lights. Given this new insight, I’m OK with admitting I was wrong.
As a good friend of mine likes to say, “FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is great, but you have to survive until FEMA finally gets to you! It might take a week or longer before that happens.”
It’s spring here in the Pacific Northwest, and this past week was planting time for our garden. For those of you that don’t remember, our main garden plot is in a corner of the yard and it looks like this:
Like most folks, we have a limited amount of garden space, but this year we’re trying to plant a larger garden. We’re putting more plants in pots and trying to make better use of our front yard. We’re even spending a little money on seeds this year! Yes, we’re spending money! Crazy talk, I know!
The kids were also finally old enough to help with the planting this year. They even seemed to be having fun!
Will we realize a ton of savings by growing our own vegetables? No, probably not. But I like the idea of having some redundancy in our own food supply… even if that means a little added inefficiency. And I’m OK with that!
The world is too crazy of a place right now. Too many important things (like food and toilet paper) are uncertain. I like the idea of having something I can actually control in my own “food supply chain”.
The Financial Optimizer in me still desires as much financial efficiency as possible, but right now the world doesn’t seem to be operating at “peak efficiency”. Most people seem to be in “survival mode” for the time being.
Meal Of The Week
OK, so being something of a foodie I always tried to incorporate delicious food pictures into my posts. Here’s this weeks deliciousness! A toasted salmon bagel sandwich – topped with cucumber, red onion, Japanese mayonnaise, fresh cracked pepper, and a side of avocado.
This really was our lunch on Wednesday! And yes, my kids really did eat this! They have no problem munching down smoked salmon or a few vegetables.
Got Questions For Us?
In an effort to keep this blog interesting, next week I’m planning to do a Q&A post! If you have any questions for me (or Mrs. Tako), drop them down in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer them!
That’s it for this week! Stay safe out there, and keep your refrigerator well stocked!