It was ugly. It was all at once curious, sad, remarkable, shocking and sobering.

Upon returning from a business trip my wife and I left to do our regular shopping, only to see the otherwise well-stocked store in a state of utter chaos.

I was aware that some in the media were advising people to stock up in case they were forced to self-quarantine due to the current coronavirus COVID-19 threat, which is beginning to pepper across U.S. states on news maps. “Two weeks” worth of non-perishables is what I heard.

The reality, of course, is quite the opposite. 

I saw up-close what reporters were broadcasting and publishing: Wiped out canned good aisles, empty bread shelves, the meat department picked clean to the bone. The frozen food section was also bare, with nothing left except a lone bag of organic chopped collard greens tucked way in the back.

The produce aisle? Also shopped down to the mats. The wet rack was stripped clean and a frazzled clerk was trailed by curious customers as he carried a 50-pound bag of bulk carrots to be stocked. I heard one customer say to his wife, “Better grab some, honey,” as they maneuvered a heaping-full cart.

I don’t understand the panic, I guess.

After all, there’s nothing amiss with the supply chain. The country isn’t running out of food. Our logistics are normal. It isn’t like there’s an imminent nationwide ice-age descending upon us. What it is, however, is a frightening look into what can happen to retailers with very little notice.

The stores are wisely reacting with reassurances that they will rebound, restock and soon return to normal. Some chains reduced their operating hours so there’s a longer period to clean and restock each night and have imposed limits on certain commodities so there will be ample supply for all. 

Who knows how long the panic type of shopping will last? We’re all aware of the graveness of the virus situation, as entire cities close down venues, schools and most large public gatherings in precautionary efforts to contain the threat.

My only takeaway from the shocking shopping trip is this: We’re able to quickly rebound with logistics and food supply now (not trying to minimize the current situation), but what if was a less controllable, nationwide threat? 

Heaven forbid this will ever occur, but this disturbing episode gives us a glimpse of how vulnerable we are, how quickly a food chain can be compromised. 

And that with this in mind, never take for granted our inalienable rights, remain ever-helpful, ever-vigilant, and ever-thankful. 

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at [email protected].

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