Lockdown Week 7: When The Food Ran Out
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!
28 thoughts on “Lockdown Week 7: When The Food Ran Out”
Good luck! Unfortunately, I managed to kill every single plant that I was ever responsible for 🙂 I’m staying with the supermarket for now. Even with severe supply chain issues there is almost always some sort of local produce readily available.
Haha! Good luck Backpack!
Great post. I agree that part of the food production system is a bit fragile but if it really came to the sh*t hitting the fan and there were real shortages things would adjust, I have no doubt. Just as companies quickly adjusted to making hand sanitizer , ventilators, and masks. It has to reach a “crucial” stage for them to do so.
I cannot have a garden as there are too many squirrels, chipmunks, and other critters near me. No matter how hard I try to protect my stuff they get in, which includes digging underground to get inside cages and eat my stuff. It’s frustrating. Good luck!
Wow, that does sound frustrating. Our biggest issue here is with rabbits eating the tender new fronds of our plants.
They inevitably get some, but we typically have plenty to eat as well!
I agree. I spent a huge amount on installing wicking beds ad a watering system for the other garden beds when I moved in here.
Glad I did that now!
Having the fresh produce from our garden staves off the supermarket visits – which keeps us safer.
That’s great Frogdancer! You’ll be eating good this summer I bet.
It’s such a pain to go to the grocery store right now. Half the time what I need is out of stock, dealing with the lines, and i feel like I’m suiting up to go to the moon!
Yes, supply chains are being severely stretched right now, and it’s not like we (businesses and consumers) are just buying widgets. The spikes and drops in demand and the loss of direct shipments to large businesses are causing mayhem.
We’ve always had trouble growing food because we’ve never gone all-in like it appears the Tako clan has – have a big designated garden is much better than our piecemeal approach 🙂 Plus the missus and I may have brown thumbs, but at least we grow a lot of herbs that’d be expensive to buy (though herbs won’t feed us in an apocalypse…).
For Q&A: I’d be interested to know (to the level you’re comfortable sharing) your and Ms. Tako’s university experience – type and expense of school, did you self-fund or have help, etc. And then I’d love to know what you’re doing with T1 and T2 (529, “good luck kid”, whatever). I’ve seen a lot of cases where people continue the tradition, whatever it is (we are certainly in that camp), so I’m curious. I’ll think up more questions and try to add or dm you.
Thanks for your Q&A question Paul! I’ll be sure to address it!
After a garden, you may want to get a smoker and smoke your own salmon. And cheese. And bacon. And chicken. Give it a shot!
I’ve smoked a few things over the years. It’s good fun.
I’ve always had the dream for my family to be as self-sufficient as possible… solar, own water source, garden, etc. It would just make these kinds of scenarios a little less scary and stressful.
Gardening was one of the projects on my bucket list that I wanted to try out. We had envisioned that as part of the plan once we moved to Panama… but then we ended up renting a 3rd-floor condo. So I’ve had to push that back for now. I’m not too worried about the fragility of the supply chain yet, but you really never know.
I was a prepper to a degree back in the States but couldn’t take any of it with me. In fact, I probably have a couple dozen N-95 masks sitting in a storage unit back there. I prepared for years for the just-in-case situation and months after I left everything behind, that day showed up! 😉
Stay safe, Mr. Tako!
Your garden is going to be beautiful, and the pleasure you & your kids will get from it will be priceless (unless you end up with a lot of weeds to pull). I think it can be inexpensive to grow food from seeds. It’s definitely going to taste better than the food that’s been shipped for miles at the grocery store! Indoor gardening is much, much cheaper than buying the same thing at the store, too. I’m talking about sprouts and specialty culinary mushrooms.
I don’t consider myself a “prepper”, but I do see the logic in diversifying resource acquisition.
For example, if you ran a business you can probably see the advantages of having more than one supplier AND more than one customer. It’s a far more stable business that way.
I think of running a household a lot like running a business. In that sense it’s “preparing”. Given a long enough time horizon, any resource can go through periods of scarcity or excess.
A few processing plants in Canada have closed due to COVID-19 outbreak. The food supply chain is definitely more fragile than I expected. I’ve also heard that many of the farms are using immigrant workers and the working conditions aren’t great. Sad to hear that.
We started planting stuff in our garden about a month ago. Things are now coming up. We just had kale and rocket salad from the garden. If this lock down goes longer (i.e. into the summer), we’ll certainly be more self sufficient when it comes to veggies
Q&A: Are you guys speaking Japanese to the kids regularly at home? Or do you rely on the school for teaching Japanese?
Q&A: What’s the biggest struggle with the kids during this lock down?
Thanks for the Q&A questions Tawcan! I’ll try to answer them!
It’s good to have a garden to work on when you can’t go out much. We are planting too. Well, it’s mostly my wife’s project. She enjoys being outside and working with the plant. The boy and I help out occasionally, but we mostly try to stay out of her way. It’s her alone time too.
I’d love to keep a few chickens, but we have a shared backyard. It wouldn’t work.
I like your thinking! I’ve never been much of a gardener other than a few potted plants on the deck, but I’m thinking its time to get a smidge more serious. Have to admit nothing tastes better than when you harvest your own veggies. When I was a kid, my parents had a huge back yard garden that their two kids got to weed a portion of every summer morning! Maybe that’s why I’ve had an aversion to my own garden as an adult!
I make 89k a year, plus another 30k tax free (military). Married to a stay at home wife, 3 kids under 5. I have been maxing out My 401k, and 2 traditional IRA’s. I am trying to determine if I should change this all to Roth 401k and Roth IRA. Is there some handy calculations or calculator?
That’s funny! I’m not big on weeding myself, but with plants in pots the weeding isn’t too bad. 🙂
Q&A: I know you don’t go out to eat at restaurants very often and you make delicious looking meals at home. However, are there any specific foods or meals that you don’t feel you can make well at home that you miss eating at restaurants?
I, for example, don’t think ramen is easily replicated at home and have to go out to eat to quench my ramen craving every once in a while.
Mr. Tako –
I’ll tell you what, it amazes me seeing that ground turkey and ground chicken are running low/are out in stores.
We use that significantly for stir frys, tacos, burgers, stuffed peppers, etc..
However, per usual, we adjust and make different/fun/interesting meals with what we have. Definitely have saved so much in the last 6-7 weeks!
I’ve actually notice our spending has increased slightly. With the kids and the Mrs. being home all day, there’s a increased demand for me to fix things around the house and complete “honey-do” projects.
I guess I’m just lucky. 🙂
I’ve moved to more a plant based diet, so I eat mostly fish and poultry, and try for legumes etc. I’m not worried about some of the food supply, personally. I do have concerns about the larger economic impact.
A few local restaurants are doing ‘family meal packs’, like feed a family of 5+ with all the fixings. I know it’s helping them keep their supplier orders honored, and feed people.
I don’t have much of a green thumb, and live in a condo and don’t own the land around it. Both of my parents are great at growing stuff. Lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs.
My question is about the rumor of negative interest rates. I tried reading up on it on invedtopedia. My concern is are the banks going to charge me to keep my money there? Or does it really just influence lending / borrowing? Any insight or resources? Maybe you know someone who could guest post?
Yes back in January I tripled my usual growing area and planted lots of quick growing vegetables. It will not be enough but will reduce our reliance on the supermarkets. The last shop I did was 4 weeks ago and prices were already 25-400% higher on fresh fruit and veg. Others were lower like melons as the restaurant industry collapsed. We also have special plastic containers which make things last longer. They work well – we ate our last tomato (at least a month old) yesterday. We still have another couple of weeks of apples and carrots. You just have to know how to store them right. Our motivation was not actually concerns about the supply chain but wanting to reduce the frequency of trips to the supermarket. Plenty of people have sickened from this as their only source. We are now heading into the Southern Hemisphere winter and I am rigging up temporary plastic houses to extend the season where I have not bothered with this before. We have chickens but they are laying poorly currently but luckily our neighbours are selling us some. The only thing we ran out of was milk but no room for a cow. We did have to institute some rationing to 500 mls per person per day which improved things. I have always loved the idea of self sufficiency and have always liked to have a fully stocked pantry just in case. So there was no need for panic buying in our case. We had leisurely stock piled over several weeks since the first news out of China. But I do sympathise with others having pest problems. I have had whole heads of broccoli and corguettes eaten clean off overnight. I have wire cages over my avocados. It’s an ongoing battle.
I’m jealous you can grow avocados! That’s amazing to me! 🙂 We spend several hundred dollars a year on avocados alone!
Yes growing avocados if you can (need infrequent frosts and mild warm moist weather) is totally worth it as they are always expensive in the shops. But the trees take 5-7 years to fruit (ours took ). Our climate is not ideal for them (mediterranean but hot dry summers – think no rain for 6 months) but we get away with it by irrigation, shade cloth and lots of mollycoddling. But humans are funny. I used to live in a colder climate and spent all my time trying to keep citrus, passionfruit and babacos alive. I had citrus under frost cloth for 4 months and frost alarms in the garden. These would wake me and I would run the sprinklers so the flowers on the fruit trees wouldn’t get killed by spring frosts. Sounds crazy but it was an awesome hobby. I was trying to grow everything that was marginal in my climate. I used to devour books from North America like ‘gardening in a cold climate’. I learned some clever tips from gardeners in Vermont and Canada. I mean if they can grow bananas, cucumbers and tomatoes all year round in Iceland – nothing is impossible. Now I have no problem growing all those plants but I hanker after all the things I grew easily in the cold climate. It’s much harder to manufacture cold in a warm climate so I have killed many a raspberry and kiwifruit plant with our relentlessly hot dry summers. It definitely wasn’t economic for the first few years but now we can go months without buying fruit and we have an exciting range of fruit that is normally expensive and hard to source in the shops. But in your climate a lot is possible. A very impressive urban market gardener (Curtis Stone) has a business growing leafy greens (which have the highest price per pound) in Kelowna in Canada. Tunnel houses make it possible year round and are cheap and easy to set up. You can do all sorts of things cheaply to extend your season with recycled materials. For example a passive solar wall out of water filled bottles which store heat and release it at night. I was still harvesting tomatoes in winter in my cold climate garden with this technique.
I now almost exclusively buy food on farmers markets – order and pay online, then pick up with minimal contact. Works very well, gets me plenty of affordable, high quality food and keeps the money in the neighborhood; in the long run this might also help to diversify the supply chain away from facilities that are large enough to produce several % of the US supplying one place.
I have a very small garden. I try to focus on items that are high value like tomatoes and red/yellow/orange bell peppers. It makes about zero financial sense to grow your own rice, potatoes, or corn.
You might do some research on “Victory Gardening”. It wasn’t just a patriotic label for self sufficiency in WWII. It was a method of growing. The whole system is designed to use the lowest inputs of tools, labor, space, soil amendments, whatever. I.e., it is a super cheap way to garden.