American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

The Pandemic and the Distribution of Choice

Laura J. Miller, Professor and Chair of Sociology, Brandeis University

Laura J. Miller

Laura J. Miller

Among the many surreal scenes of the pandemic during spring 2020 were those of empty shelves in supermarkets and long lines of people waiting to enter grocery stores and food pantries alike. An American population, for the most part, too young to have experienced the widespread destitution of the Great Depression or the ration cards of World War II, fell back on references to those historical events to make sense of their predicament.

But the comparison with these earlier eras has its limits. The disruptions to habitual patterns of food procurement, which continue as the pandemic drags on, can find many of their sources within the largely invisible system of food distribution that has developed over the last several decades. There are a number of dimensions of this system that the pandemic has allowed us to see more clearly. What they highlight is a system of enormous complexity and interdependence that in maximizing consumer choice, increasingly makes intermediaries responsible for sourcing and preparing food.

It is perhaps helpful to identify the various players involved in food distribution—how food is moved from producers to the eating public. They include food brokers who help producers find retail or wholesale buyers for their products; companies engaged in importing and exporting food; wholesalers who aggregate purchases from producers and then ship out to retail outlets or food service providers; wholesale markets for produce, fish, etc., which retail buyers can visit in order to select items; shippers with their temperature-controlled carriers to protect perishable goods; restaurants, caterers, food trucks, and other vendors of prepared food; schools, hospitals, prisons, corporate campuses, and other institutional food service providers; grocery stores, bakeries, butchers, farmers markets, and other retailers with physical outlets serving consumers; online retailers and home delivery services; and food banks, food pantries, meal programs, and gleaners who bring food to people without the means to purchase it in the consumer market.

This complex network of intermediaries plays a key role in providing an enormous quantity and variety of food to much of the American population. And considering all the labor involved, the miles of travel, the extensive packaging to stave off spoilage, and the layers of handlers who each take a share of the final price, this food is cheap. The globalization of supply chains is one reason for inexpensive food in the United States. With buyers scouring the entire world for products, farmers and processors find themselves competing with counterparts across the globe. Meanwhile, labor costs in the domestic food sector are held down through mechanization and the low wages that characterize jobs in agriculture, food processing, retail, and food service. Government subsidies for some commodities make the economics work for some (mostly large) growers, as do economies of scale that, again, benefit large growers as well as large retailers such as Walmart and Costco.

Essential Goods

When it comes to basic necessities, Americans’ spending patterns are different from those of the past; Americans now spend much of their income on housing and relatively little on food. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, 13 percent of the average household’s expenditures went to food (eaten both in and away from home) compared to 30 percent in 1950. At the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this state of abundance left 10.5 percent of households food insecure in 2019, meaning that household members did not have enough food for an active, healthy life throughout the year. 

The pandemic and resulting unemployment greatly exacerbated the problem of limited access to nutritious, affordable, culturally relevant food, with some estimates placing the proportion of the population experiencing food insecurity at some point during 2020 at more than double pre-pandemic rates. As sociologists know, issues of food insecurity are closely connected to inequality and the inadequacies of public programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But for now, I will focus on what happened to the abundance of food that is usually characteristic of the larger food system that has appeared to serve so many so well.

The extent to which a domestic market depends on global sources of food products became apparent when transportation disruptions cut off supply chains. Despite food being deemed an “essential” good, food distribution is not self-contained, but is integrated into a global transportation system that runs at full capacity, and therefore profitably, by handling countless unrelated goods and people. When passenger airplanes (which also carry freight) were not flying, and ships were not allowed to dock or let crews disembark, food supplies were deeply affected. Halted production of nonfood items and new sanitation and inspection measures also caused major delays in transportation. What had been a finely calibrated system—in which carriers always traveled with full loads, and containers and trucks were scheduled to be available at a particular place when goods were ready to be loaded and shipped—fell into disarray.

As we focus on the domestic front, other issues emerge. Certainly, some of the food shortages during the pandemic, exemplified by meat, stemmed from problems in production rather than distribution. Meatpackers who did little to ensure the health and safety of their workforce time and again became centers of coronavirus outbreaks, leading to shutdowns and scaled-back operations. However, many other problems came from the fact that so many producers do not orient their operations to individual consumers, but instead serve various segments of the distribution system.

Institutional and Restaurant Buyers 

One of the surprises to those of us who had not been paying attention is how much supply chains have become focused on serving institutional and restaurant buyers rather than individual households. To use the well-known example of a nonfood item shortage, it was not simply that people were hoarding months’ worth of toilet paper (though they were). It was also that toilet paper producers were not equipped to suddenly retool and make household-grade and size rolls of toilet paper rather than the types used by workplaces, schools, hotels, and other larger buyers. 

The same held true for all kinds of food items. Rather than institutional and restaurant bakers who would reliably buy 50 pound sacks of flour, demand came from individual households on a baking kick searching for 5 pound packages. When cooking for themselves, consumers seek out different kinds of food than in restaurants, with the result that demand for canned soups outpaced supplies while farmers could no longer be assured of a restaurant purchasing an entire crop of arugula. Cuts of beef were out of balance since consumers stopped ordering steaks in restaurants and instead increased their purchases of ground beef in grocery stores. 

Along with temporary food shortages resulting from an inability to meet retail demand came adverse (and probably more long-lasting) environmental effects. The sudden refocusing on the household level necessitated greater amounts of packaging at the same time that grocery stores were required to stop selling bulk items that involve common usage of bins or implements. A surge in restaurant take-out similarly brought additional packaging into circulation.

The flip side of a production system geared to institutional buyers is how dependent food relief efforts have become on waste generated from institutional sources. One of the achievements in food recovery operations during the last 25 years has been the loosening of restrictions on the ability to donate excess supplies of food to organizations that process or repackage it for re-distribution to people facing food insecurity. The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, and a range of state and local laws that give liability protections to donors, helped to increase the amount, variety, and quality of donated food. But at the same time as unemployment, health crises, and other effects of the pandemic increased, the amount of food relief and supplies dried up with the shuttering of restaurants, cancellation of catered events, and low inventory of grocery stores. As a consequence, food relief organizations have had to rely on inadequate cash donations to purchase food.

The State of the Food Supply Chain

Now that many months have passed since the pandemic began, we can consider whether the food distribution system is showing signs of major long-term change. For the most part, the answer appears to be no. The centrality of long supply chains, global sourcing, and commercial and institutional food purveyors may have been temporarily shaken, but these defining features of a distribution system have not been dislodged. 

To take the case of commercial food preparation, the pandemic underscored just how much Americans have moved away from cooking for themselves and how large a role the commercial food sector plays in the economy. Closures and diminished operations of food services and drinking places were responsible for 59 percent of the jobs lost in March 2020. Although people initially shopped and cooked for themselves at greatly increased levels, these new habits were quickly relinquished once eating establishments reopened. According to the Hartman Group, by summer 2020, consumers were acquiring food from restaurants at almost the same levels they did the previous year. The major difference was that people were now more likely to eat takeout at home rather than dining at a restaurant. Meanwhile, industry members speak of “building resiliency” and “mitigating risk” in supply chains by using standard measures such as sophisticated technology and enhanced communication within and across networks. The focus is on fine-tuning rather than overhauling the system.

Although we are likely to return to the food landscape that prevailed before the pandemic, we might still pause and ask what is gained and lost by doing so. The pandemic highlights how important institutional food providers, such as school lunch programs, are in providing food to people who otherwise may not be able to access it. For those with stable incomes, a complex system of sourcing food from all over the world ensures that tens of thousands of items are regularly available in the average supermarket, with additional options found in specialty stores and online. 

Commercial food providers sell a great variety of tasty, prepared options, especially in urban areas. But the downsides of this system also loom large, including the uneven benefits to a population, both domestic and abroad, marked by great inequality; the vulnerabilities of complex supply chains; the resulting amount of waste and environmental degradation; and a reliance on other people’s labor, much of it poorly compensated, in order to make food affordable to American consumers. Numerous recent books, by sociologists and others, document these various aspects of food distribution, including Andrew Deener’s The Problem with Feeding Cities, Laresh Jayasanker’s Sameness in Diversity, and Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries.

Can we imagine alternatives to the current system? Indeed, we can, and the food sector is already replete with examples of producer cooperatives, local food networks, worker-owned restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture, and other direct-to-consumer operations. But in order to make profound changes in the food system, we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, it is important to recognize that even with increases in cooperative ventures, government regulation, and public subsidies, food provision will largely remain a market-based activity. Despite a run on home canning supplies this past fall, there is little indication that Americans have the desire—not to mention the ability—to withdraw from a market system and become truly self-sufficient or communal in food provisioning. Similarly, with historical failures in the background, one does not hear calls for a centralized state apparatus of food production or distribution. 

Second, we need to grapple with not only the entrenched interests of a market system, but the expectations of an eating public for lots of choices, at relatively low prices. Too often, analysts focus on either the struggles of food laborers or the struggles of a public trying to adequately feed itself. We should not forget that these struggles are connected, and they often conflict with one another. Perhaps a greater focus on the intermediaries will enable us to better address these conundrums. 

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.