“Where’s my jalapeño-infused cheese?!” Get ready for limited grocery choices for a while

by Conor Orr

 

WALSENBURG — On Wednesday, March 18, I went and visited with Hugh and Denise Brown, the owners of the First Choice Market to talk about the ways business has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and what they have done with their stores in response. Grocery stores are one of the few types of business deemed essential in a pandemic, so even as the days go on and business after business is forced to close, they will remain open for people to leave their house and purchase essentials.

This puts a lot of pressure on supermarkets, in more ways than one. Clearly, as we have observed in other stores, such a sudden uptick in traffic can completely wipe out a distributor’s local supply of certain products. This is the start of a process which Hugh described as “emptying the pipeline,” during which the pressure exerted upon grocery stores moves up the chain of supply, creating shortages at every level all the way up to the manufacturer. Generally, supermarkets heavily integrate large data into the supply process, aggregating various consumption metrics into efficiency-oriented algorithms in order to predict customer traffic, and there is not a system in place to react to unpredictable upticks and downticks in real time.

Filling up the pipeline

So there is an empty pipeline now and people still need to eat. Now what? Hugh explained that manufacturers have taken several steps to increase productivity and fill the pipeline again. For one, they have ramped up production, making more actual product, and for another they have decided to decrease variety. For instance, companies like Proctor and Gamble and Kraft have made dramatic cuts to their variety of product lines, reducing the number of brand sub-types they produce from some odd hundred to just a few. This will allow them to produce more of the few products, quicker. To be clear, this means that there will still be plenty of toilet paper on the shelves, there will still be plenty of cheese, it just might not be your preferred toilet paper or your favorite cheese.

One advantage that stores like First Choice have is, being independently-owned and locally-operated, they do not rely so heavily on metrics and algorithms as larger, more urban supermarkets do. Brown says: “what you see with other stores and there’s nothing there, we’re not in that situation because we’re boots on the ground, looking at the shelf and thinking about what we need to order.” So supermarkets in small communities like ours should be able to resupply quicker than larger, corporate stores.

“Now that being said, there will be a disruption of the flow of things. Some items have been put on allocation and we’ve made the decision to limit some things, not because we want to keep them but we want to make sure that everyone is taken care of. So, take a family that has a child that is on formula. We’ve decided that we need to limit that so that we make sure that everybody’s baby gets fed so that somebody isn’t sitting on five cases of baby formula and somebody else’s baby is starving.”

Forming an action plan First Choice has also ramped up their sanitation focus, addressing the large groups of people who will continue to frequent their store by increasing the number of times per day that the floors, shelves, and check stands are cleaned. There have always been and continue to be sanitation wipes for the carts. First Choice has also enacted a few unique policies to help deal with the crisis, particularly regarding time. The store hours are being kept wide open to maximize the window of time that people can get supplies in, so that people don’t all try and crowd into the store during the same limited frame. Also, Brown says: “We are going to 24 hour a day receiving so we don’t bottleneck deliveries. So if the warehouse sends a truck and it shows up at two in the morning, I’m gonna be there at two in the morning to unload that truck. It’s not gonna sit there and wait five hours for the store to open. We’re gonna get it unloaded and get it on the way so it can get to somebody else’s community and we can keep going.” First Choice is looking to hire one or two more employees to help deal with the all the new business.

Hugh and Denise also addressed other strategies at addressing food insecurity that are in motion. The program WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a federal assistance program which is aimed at providing nutritional support to “low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children under the age of five.” Various products throughout stores are labeled as being WIC approved, which means that those items are on their list of subsidizable products. In the recent surge of people flocking to stores and stocking up, many of these WIC products were wiped out, so WIC recipients have been unable to apply their credit. In response, WIC has okay-ed various substitutions, so if a store is out of large eggs, for instance, WIC recipients may pick up medium eggs instead, so long as they are in the WIC catalog.

 

The good of the many

In this moment of economic turmoil, one critically important population to consider are the beneficiaries of such assistance programs, and with the schools closed, there are currently a lot of kids who usually are fed at least one meal per day through the free and reduced school lunch program. With the schools closed, these families are being put under extreme pressure, so it is important that we as a community do all that we can to help. There may be some additional funds applied to recipients’ food stamps accounts, but there are still a lot of logistic problems in making sure that people get fed. Families and people who live paycheck to paycheck are not in the position to stock up, and they still need to wait for checks to start rolling in.

So please check the label before you purchase, and don’t buy up all the WIC-approved items. If you can, please consider donating food and/or money to the Sangre de Cristo Center for Youth, which is currently running a food drive to help families in exactly that situation. For more details, check out their Facebook page or contact Myra Trujillo at her phone number (719) 989-7813.

We’re all in this together.

…perhaps not. Selection will be smaller for a while.

 

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