Supply chain problems create access issue for Thanksgiving

By Gladys Vargas, Megan Gregoire, Daniel Multz, Hania Malhas and Katrina Liu
Boston University News Service

This coming Thursday, millions of Americans will gather with family to celebrate Thanksgiving, with plates of food crowding kitchen tables across the country. But in some cases, nationwide supply chain shortages have been forcing families to confront empty grocery store shelves and inflated food prices. 

Low employment in the farm industry, a shortage of truck drivers due to unsustainable working conditions and global shipping delays are only a few of the obstacles slowing the industry. 

Year-on-Year Increase in selling price for producers Nationwide for September:

“The term domino effect is very much relevant here because any one link in the supply chain that gets clogged up or comes to a screeching halt,” said Toby Gooley, former editor of Supply Chain Quarterly. “That’s going to have an effect all the way down the line.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the worldwide supply chain. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose to 6.2 for October 2021, meaning food prices increased 6.2% from October 2020 to October 2021, signaling inflation. 

Year-on-Year Difference (2020 to 2021) in the CPI of the Northeast Region by Month in 2021:

“The inflation isn’t causing the supply chain problems, it’s a reflection of the supply chain problems,” said Robert Triest, Northeastern University’s chair of economics and former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. “Because some goods and services are in short supply, that puts upward pressure on those goods and services.”

On average, turkeys between 8 and 16 pounds cost about 25 cents more this year than last. Staple Thanksgiving products like turkey, cranberry, liquid gravy, and refrigerated pies are running out of stock fast. 

Greater Boston Food Bank Senior Director of Communications and Public Affairs Catherine Lynn said that the bank has been experiencing inflation firsthand as the holidays grow closer. 

“For example, for turkeys, compared to last year, turkeys went up over 10%. Other items, like squash, has gone up 17%, sweet potato is up 28%, so you’ll see some of these staple items have just gone up through the roof,” Lynn said.

Year-on-Year Increase in prices for the Greater Boston Food Bank:

Meeting the needs of those who cannot afford rising food costs is proving difficult as well. Food pantries are finding it difficult to stock their own inventory ahead of the holiday season. 

“Over the last two years, we have seen need grow about 60% because of COVID,” said Lynn about preexisting, non-holiday related needs in the city. 

“Due to the economic and financial hardship that COVID and the pandemic brought on, many more people have found themselves in need,” Lynn said. “That need really hasn’t gone down a whole lot.”

Year-on-Year Price Increase for Foods Nationwide for September:

Widespread delivery delays have further slowed down the distribution process of goods and services, majorly impacting food shortages nationally. 

“Anything that has to do with transportation, storage and distribution of goods is almost at a standstill because every node in the supply chain is full-up,” Gooley said. “Warehouses are full; they’ve run out of space to hold inventory so they’re having a hard time taking delivery, and that means the containers full of imported goods that are sitting on the docks [are] not moving out as quickly as they normally do.”

Kate Ashley, associate professor of supply chains and information management at Northeastern University, also shared concerns about truck labor’s effect on the process.

“There’s been press recently about a big retirement of truckers. So when items get to the U.S., getting them from the port to the final customer requires a lot of different types of labor, including unloading the containers at the port, getting that onto a truck in most cases, and getting it to the final destination,” Ashley said. “It’s getting more expensive to do anything in terms of logistics.”

“We certainly have seen delivery delays and cost increases for many different products,” Lynn added. “Just sort of to give a sense to that, we’ve kind of seen an average rise [of price] between 10% and 20% on various food items.”

Greater Boston Food Bank has a full-time food purchasing team, which allows it to have partnerships with food retailers. Lynn said this sets it apart from other food banks and allows it to have enough food.

“It is a bit of a juggling act, making sure that we’ve got enough food in our inventory at any given time, but we’ve diversified the portfolio enough that we do have enough food, it is just the day to day logistics of getting that food are pretty chaotic,” Lynn added.

Ashley had similar concerns about food access. 

“For many consumers, being able to just pay a bit more for a good that you’re used to buying might not be a big deal,” Ashley said. “In under-resourced communities, those price differences that we’re seeing, which may be just kind of unfortunate to communities with more resources, could be really devastating.” 

Prices may remain high after the holidays, Gooely speculated, due to the slow process it will take to repair the fractures within the supply chain. In October, the Biden-Harris administration announced the launch of a Supply Chain Dashboard that will begin to track the progress of rolling out backlogged imported goods.

“The severity and how widespread it is … it really is affecting almost every aspect of the U.S. economy, which is why for the first time in history the White House is getting very deeply involved in trying to help private industry solve this problem,” Gooley said.

GRAPHIC: October Year-on-Year CPI Increase by BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) Region:

This global issue will not disappear overnight, and it will take a while for the economy to stabilize.

“Everything I’m seeing and all the experts that I talk to don’t think it’s gonna sort out until at best a year from now and it could even go into 2023,” Gooley said. “Consumers should be prepared for these prices to remain high.”

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