Food Shortage: Why Shelves are Empty & What to Do

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The year 2020 has been a year to remember for sure. From a global pandemic to looting, riots, and killer bees. But, the next thing we have to worry about is food shortage. The national lockdowns and social distancing measures have dried up work and incomes and disrupted agricultural production as well as supply routes. This means millions of people are worrying about how they will get enough to eat when the shelves dry up too. 

Of course, this is not a post to spread panic or worry because we are prepared! This is an informational post to help you understand why the shelves are empty and how to prepare more so you are in a place where you don’t have to worry. 

Food Shortage: Why are Grocery Store Shelves Empty?

When it comes to being prepared, it is important to know why something is happening so you can look for trends in the future, as well as know when things may make a turn for the better. There are several reasons why we are seeing empty shelves in the grocery store. 

Shifts in Eating Habits

Food Shortage: Why Shelves are Empty & What to Do

Before the pandemic, people were able to go to restaurants as often as they pleased. When the lockdowns and social distancing took hold, more people bought food from the grocery stores instead of going out to eat. A LOT of our food supply had been going to restaurants prior to the lockdown, which means:

  • A 50-pound bag of flour or a 48-ounce container of sour creams doesn’t have anywhere to go. 
  • Buns that were sold to restaurants needed “new” packaging on the fly. 
  • Companies that sold to restaurants can’t switch to retail quick enough. 

Panic Shopping

Not only are people eating at home more, but you see a lot of reports of price gouging, import restrictions, and more stay at home orders. This drives people to panic shop and stock up even more than they have before. Obviously, this leads to empty shelves which makes the cycle spin even faster. 

Meat Processing Plants were Closed

Food Shortage: Why Shelves are Empty & What to Do

When dealing with raw meat, you have to be very very careful. Due to people testing positive for COVID19, many meat processing and packing plants closed for a period of time. There are plenty of hogs, chickens, and cows, but they all have to go through processing and packing plants. If workers get sick, or the plant closes, there is a limited supply of meat being sent into the stores. 

Importing Has Slowed

Global trade has fallen in the last few months pretty significantly. The United States imports about half of our fruit, such as grapes and bananas, from Mexico.

We also import about 20% of our vegetables from Mexico during this time of the year. And, as many people know, we import a ton from China.

Imports have drastically slowed from China and small business owners can’t get many of the products that they sell. Therefore, we will see more empty shelves. 

Basically, there are a whole lot of reasons you are seeing empty shelves, but just because the shelves are empty doesn’t mean you can’t still prep. 

How to Prepare During a Food Shortage

Obviously, if you are a prepper, you will already have at least a few months of food stocked up. But, if you aren’t out there restocking, your food supply will soon run out, and you will have your own food shortage. Here are some things you can do:

Buy What’s Available During a Food Shortage

Empty Shelves

As shelves empty, you may not be able to get what you want, but there are still things on the shelves that you can buy. Grab what you can based on what you will eat. Obviously, if it comes down to it, you and your family will eat pretty much whatever you have, even if you don’t like it. If you can’t get white flour, be patient and it may show up again sooner than we expect.

Make Frequent Shopping Trips

There may not be what you need on the shelves on Saturday, but you may be able to find it on Tuesday. If you are like me, you may only go to the store with a huge list once a month. When shelves are empty, it’s best to go more often.

You can also find out when each store has its various shipments. You will have more luck finding the supplies you need on the day the shipment is put on the shelves.

Always Buy the Limit

In many stores, there is a limit on what you can buy for certain items. If there is a limit of 5 cases of water, but you only need two, consider buying all 5 cases of water. You don’t know when the shortage will improve, so to be on the safe side, buy the limit of anything you are buying, if its something that will be used or eaten.

Can or Freeze Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

When I go to the store, the produce section seems to have pretty much everything. Use this to your advantage. You can stock up on fruits and vegetables. Obviously, fresh fruits and veggies don’t last long, but if you can them or freeze them, you can keep them for a longer period of time. And don’t forget, you can dehydrate most of it if you have a dehydrator. I highly recommend this canning book I received when I took the Utah State University’s USDA Master Canner Preserver Classes. USDA Complete Canning Guide

Related: Home Canning-Important Do’s and Don’ts

Keep in mind the capacity in your freezer and that electricity can go out if you are choosing to freeze your fresh produce. Canning them can be the best option with so many uncertainties. 

Related: 15 Items Perfect for Freezer Storage

Go to Multiple Stores During a Food Shortage

When shopping for things you need to restock, go to multiple stores. In fact, go to off the wall stores that you normally wouldn’t think of. For example, during the toilet paper shortage, I went to Lowes to get toilet paper and never had a problem.

You may not realize it, but a lot of home improvement stores, gas stations, and places you don’t normally buy food may have just what you need. 

Grow Your Own Food

Food Shortage: Why Shelves are Empty & What to Do

When it comes to food shortages, the best way to be prepared is to have your own supply. As preppers, we have to be self-reliant. This means that we know how to grow and harvest our own food for survival. If you haven’t started a garden, now is the perfect time to do it.

Even if you live in an apartment, you can still have container gardens. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out my post on What to Plant in June: Zones 1-10. In my post, you will find what you can plant in each zone, as well as a list of posts for what to plant each month of the year. 

Get Livestock if You Can

Not all of us can have livestock, but if you live in the country, you most certainly can. Here’s the thing, even if you don’t know what the heck you are doing, those animals can feed you in an emergency. So, if you can get a pig, a cow, some chickens, or any other animal you can eat, consider doing it. 

If you live in the city, you can’t have all the livestock you can in the country, but there are still some you MAY be able to keep right on your city property. Here are 6 Farm Animals Perfect for City Living:

  • Chickens (not roosters)
  • Rabbits
  • Ducks
  • Quail
  • Pygmy Goats
  • Dexter Cattle

If you live in the city, be sure to check your local city guidelines on having farm animals in the city where you live and how you must keep them. 

Know Wild Edible Plants

One of the ways people stayed alive for generations was because they knew what they could and couldn’t eat in the wild. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, can’t grow a garden in your apartment, or just don’t know where to start, there are food sources all around you. Check out our posts on edible weeds you can find in your backyard:

Final Word

As a prepper, I hope you were prepared before the shortage. If you are new and not prepared, start stocking up on non-perishable items such as canned goods, rice, beans, canned meats, canned soups, canned tomatoes, spices, pasta, and other items your family will eat.

Then slowly stock up on long-term food. Dehydrated food is great, but freeze-dried food has a longer shelf-life. One can a month works great. Just do it, you have a 3-month supply in no time. Then move onto a 6-month, and then a 12-month supply

Check out my post How to Prepare for a Food Shortage for more helpful information. Stay calm, learn, and keep prepping! You can do this one can at a time. May God bless this world, Linda

Copyright Images: Shopper at Grocery Store Deposit photos_22948142_s-2019, White Plate With Blue Napkin Deposit photos_31145011_s-2019, Pork Processing Company Depositphotos_78184714_s-2019, Picking Vegetables Depositphotos_10828132_s-2019

21 thoughts on “Food Shortage: Why Shelves are Empty & What to Do

  • June 21, 2020 at 7:24 am
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    We had a discussion at our quarterly get together yesterday over this. I worked as a stock boy in my teens for a bit. The stores aren’t even built anymore with a warehouse section.
    We’ve had it good for a long time in America. This is the first experience they’ve had with it just not being there and having to actually shop. The wife and I got educated my first tour in Germany when we lived “on the economy” with the Germans and not on base. It was 50 minutes to the commissary over snowy mountains when possible.
    The discussion centered around having to go to multiple locations to find things, replacing items like baby wipes with feminine wipes and I stated how proud I was of how everyone handled it and still is. None of us had to hit our long term stuff because of our deep pantries and closets.
    Planning goes a long ways in times like these. Last minute shopping will fail.
    Do you really need those new kitchen counter tops or should you get LTS food or a generator? That $3K AR that’s the envy of the range with 2 mags and 100 rds. would be better off a $800 AR, 10 mags and 1K ball and 1K quality SP and practice. That $75-100 movie and dinner should be Redbox and $15 Chinese with the remaining spent at academy, on the way home, getting some packs of MtHouse. It’s all bout lifestyle and priorities.
    Pay attention to the world. Everyone is acting shocked at pork prices and non availability when it’s been stated for months. No last minute jumps needed if you stay ahead.
    My motto on ammo, food, fuel and many other things is
    Buy It Cheap Stack It Deep

    Reply
    • June 21, 2020 at 9:34 am
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      Hi Matt, oh man do I love your comments! You nailed it again! Mark and I live the same way. We live a simple life except we also Buy It Cheap Stack It Deep! Great statement! It’s funny how our younger years taught us so much that NOW we can survive anything. Life is so good! Linda

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  • June 21, 2020 at 10:18 am
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    Yes, Linda, we are seeing shortages already in my area. A couple of things that are not available to me, living in an apartment and limited budget: freezer space (cannot afford to purchase a free standing freezer right now) and canning (cannot afford to purchase all the canning equipment needed). SO, I have been running my dehydrator and drying fruits and vegetables. I still have not touched my LTS and don’t plan to until absolutely necessary since they have the longest shelve life. But I do have an ongoing list of things to be on the lookout for when I do go grocery shopping.

    I also keep tabs on things through on-line sellers for heirloom seeds and such. I notice that Amazon now has seed packages available again. For a while, they were out!

    Even though I live in an apartment, I am growing a few things in pots and am proud to say that I have tomatoes setting on, green beans looking good. Lettuce is done but I am now growing a small crop of microgreens – should be ready next week! I am doing what I can to make this a workable solution to some of my preps.

    Also, as Matt says, guns and ammo are also on my radar! I just would like to be able to go to the range and practice more but the local range is closed down for now! Whine, whine!!

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    • June 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm
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      Hi Leanne, I love your comment as always!! AND you have tomatoes setting!!! Woohoo! Green beans! Lettuce, life is so good! I have to whine about the shooting range as well. I need more practice. I’ve heard you can’t find a freezer anywhere even if someone wants one. I wanted to find a small chest freezer for my single mom daughter but you can’t get one anywhere. Oh well, life is changing! Hugs, Linda

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      • June 21, 2020 at 12:21 pm
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        Linda ~
        You are right about the freezer situation. I have looked all over where I live (within a 50 mile radius) and nothing new! So, I looked at the buy/sell groups near me and the only freezers I find for sale are very large! I only want perhaps up to 5 cubic feet!! I also have my daughter looking in the Seattle area for me.

        So, I will have to stick with my tiny freezer on my fridge but even at that, it holds as much as I can use for a few months. Also, since the price of meat is going sky high, I am leaning toward more plant based eating and less meat in the long run. So I am stocking a lot of dry beans for protein and lots of canned veggies and fruits. I will also buy in season fruits and veggies for immediate use as well as for dehydrating.

        Reply
    • June 22, 2020 at 12:35 pm
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      Can’t afford canning equipment? Series canner is less than $20, jars you can find used, new lids $3 or lids and rings $5 dz. new jars about $12. Canning is very inexpensive and really easy just time consuming.

      Reply
      • June 22, 2020 at 6:14 pm
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        Where can you find a canner for $20? I have searched on craigslist, buy sell trade FB sites near me. New water bath canner $52+, nothing listed near me on line for used. New jars are running close to $20 for a dozen quart jars and $16 for a dozen pints. Also, it still does not fit in my budget at this time nor do I have the space to store canning equipment and jars and jars of canned foods in my apartment.

        If/when I move, I’ll likely look for a larger place or one with a garage but my apartment doesn’t have space for storing the equipment and I cannot afford to rent a garage.

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      • June 22, 2020 at 6:54 pm
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        Hi Maureen, where are you located? I live in Utah and all canning supplies are gone gone gone. No one can find any used or new. Life has changed since this pandemic. Linda

        Reply
  • June 21, 2020 at 10:45 am
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    I have been prepping in earnest for about eight years. There was always some items put back in case of hurricanes like tarps, Coleman stoves, lanterns, flashlights, etc. Basically things that would also be useful in camping. Then about 18 years ago I finally woke up to the fact that our city water supply was not that great so that lead to purchase a Big Berkey, Tabletop water distiller, and even a survival still. I even put in a shallow well and manual hand pump. I tried my hand at gardening. I put in 10 raised beds and did have some success with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, some Brussel Sprouts, and sweet potatoes. After a few years of trying to do it by myself it fell by the wayside. I did purchase some freeze dried foods over the years although they have been stored for “emergency” only. I am shocked now by the price of Freeze dried foods at Thrive Life. What I paid for cans of vegetables have more than doubled and meat is out of the question. I have resorted to buying canned meats which is OK for now although some of it is hard to find or limited. Shopping more than your normal grocery store is definitely the answer. I have bought a dehydrator and the USDA canning book you recommended as well as the Dehydrator Bible, which has some delicious recipes. White sliced potatoes turned out great and had some luck with sweet onions that my daughter found at an excellent price. Fresh Rosemary is on the agenda for today and then some sweet potatoes. Next will be carrots, bell peppers, and celery. One thing I have found hard to find is canning supplies and seal a meal or Food Saver bags. I guess, a lot of people have come to the same conclusions. Even finding dried powdered milk has been an issue. Even though I was more prepared than many it was a wake up call to really experience shortages not only of food and disinfecting supplies, but even bigger ticket items. Everyone stay safe and keep well.

    Reply
    • June 21, 2020 at 12:08 pm
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      Hi Carolyn, I totally agree with you on the price of Thrive Life food. I become a consultant to get it cheaper. You have to buy $50.00 a month I think. I try to do $100.00 so I get free shipping. I have some Thrive Life Instant milk but wanted a little more but it’s now sold out. I wanted some pantry can size instant milk but can’t get it. I’m totally shocked that we can’t get any FodSaver stuff. We can get the bags but that’s about all. I’m glad you got a dehydrator. I’m with you on the tap water, it tastes awful. Stay well, Linda

      Reply
  • June 21, 2020 at 11:35 am
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    As always, your article was spot on and also had new information we can use. I love reading comments by other readers because of their insight, too. The only comment I have to make is when it comes to storing food, store what you “will” eat. I remember years ago the Church pushing 50lb bags of hard wheat, etc., that needed to be ground up. Not gonna happen in my lifetime! Several of the items would be a total waste of money and space for my family. I decided to have my patient husband build shelves in our basement, kinda like a grocery store. We started stocking only the foods we wanted/needed/would eat (thank you Costco!) and turned that basement into a mini grocery store. (the grown kids love it too!) We have a section for food, one for canned fruit from our trees and storehouse #10 cans, one for toiletries, medicines, and one for all that glorious TP we have :o) and other paper goods, canning supplies, etc. I mostly need to go to the grocery store for fresh items and meat (when the freezer gets low) or to restock. My parents were “Depression” kids and always had a huge garden when my sister and I were growing up. I just don’t have the patience for gardening but more importantly, we have lousy soil here no matter what we do.

    Wonderful article, Linda!

    Reply
    • June 21, 2020 at 12:28 pm
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      Hi Robbie, oh how I love your comment! You have fruit trees, those are awesome! Skip the garden, you can eat what your trees produce and can them as you mentioned. You can always trade fruit for vegetables or buy cans of green beans, etc. I remember the 50 lb bags of hard red wheat, it’s so strong in flavor. I do store lots of hard white wheat (milder in flavor) and I do have a wheat grinder or two, okay three of them! LOL! I would love to have built-in shelves, I did before we downsized, now I having rolling racks. It’s not the same but it works. Life is so good when we have our own “grocery store”! Linda

      Reply
  • June 22, 2020 at 7:31 am
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    Just a thought about animals to keep in a city dwelling…Guinea Pigs or Cuy as it is known in South America. Tastes sorta like duck I am told! Never tasted it myself though. Guinea Pigs were always a farm animal until they were introduced into the US. Legal almost everywhere you live. Could be a good fit for some people. Just sayin!

    Reply
    • June 22, 2020 at 8:25 am
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      Hi Bill, great tip on the Guinea Pigs! Hopefully, people are learning how to care for small meat animals if they can have them on their property. Good comment, thank you! Linda

      Reply
  • June 22, 2020 at 7:52 am
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    It’s been interesting to see commercial sized packaging appearing at our local supermarkets. Pre-pandemic Sysco just sold to restaurants and institutions, but these days there is an entire endcap at my local market with #10 cans of beans, gallon jugs of sauces, and large mylar bags of tuna fish. And the freezer section has large bags of cut veggies that are obviously packaged for the commercial market and not consumers.
    Fortunately I was pretty well prepared well before Covid-19 was on the minds of everyone, so I have kept to my usual restocking, although it’s more a case of restocking when supply is available than based on great sale prices. Although I didn’t have any boxed milk on hand and have been slowly buying a couple of boxes at a time to get up to a couple of months of breakfast usage (enough to match the cereal I keep on hand.) I have been only getting a few at a time to give other folks the chance to buy some as well since I have other choices and wouldn’t go hungry for not having a specific item. When there was a limit of 1 of specific items I’ll admit I almost always bought one of each type even if I wasn’t short…as long as I had room to store it. But now that limits are mostly gone or a limit of 2 per item, I’ve tried to avoid buying more than usual…again to give other folks a chance.
    And I’ve actually cut back on the number of stores I go to regularly to avoid being exposed to more people than I need to. Sure, I tend to shop nice and early to avoid crowds, but every additional store I go into is risking more exposure to Covid, even with masking and practically OCD hand washing. Of course, for a critical item I’ll go to multiple stores, but it’s pretty rare that I either don’t have something in the stockpile or need it urgently enough that I can’t wait a week or two. I guess what I’m trying to say is that with a pandemic out there, it’s prudent to minimize the number of places we go to, limit the time we spend at each location and be careful to avoid the stores when they are too crowded for social distancing.

    Reply
    • June 22, 2020 at 8:51 am
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      Hi DMWalsh, I have been seeing a lot of those large packages as well in the freezer section. I’m OCD with washing my hands as well. I wear a mask where ever I go. I try to do a grocery pick up so I can stay out of the stores. I’m not sure if or when this pandemic will ever end. Stay well, stay safe! I just started eating tomatoes from the garden this week! Yay, Linda

      Reply
      • June 22, 2020 at 9:23 am
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        Yeah, until there is an effective vaccine available I’m afraid that we’ll see cases continue to be a problem in various parts of the country. I liken it more to things sloshing around than full on waves since we never really got out of the first wave and cases are already starting to spike in southern states. Sigh.
        I’m jealous of your tomatoes, since my cherry tomato plants are putting up lots of fruit and flowers, but nothing is even starting to ripen yet. Hopefully soon! But the basil plants from seed are doing pretty well, so we can start harvesting a bit in another week or two to add a smidgen of freshness.
        Thanks for all you do for the prepping community. Hope you and yours continue to be well.

        Reply
        • June 22, 2020 at 9:52 am
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          Hi DMWalsh, Life is good when you taste that first cherry tomato! And the basil! Linda

          Reply
  • June 24, 2020 at 4:12 pm
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    I only saw a few things that were sold out/unavailable, then later when in stock ‘limited’ purchases of those. I got stuff in January…and am lucky to have an old upright freezer and 2 refrigerators, 1 of which is a side by side so a lot of room in it. Those January purchases made a difference in how often I had to shop in Feb/March/April, and even now I guess. I’m buying up extra canned goods now, just in case. Here’s an interesting thing I found when supplies were low: our stores in MN seemed to have lots of frozen produce/pasta/meats but the canned and packaged foods aisles were picked over for awhile (April/May). The canned items did see a small price increase but the frozen stuff didn’t change at all in price. My son is a Personal Trainer so he mostly wants frozen or fresh anyway, so this was a good thing! I’m a worry wart about our grid so I will continue to buy extra canned foods and may even buy and can some meat ‘just in case’. And, I will continue to get an extra pkg of TP each week. Thank the Lord I do have storage, lol.

    Reply
    • June 24, 2020 at 5:25 pm
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      Hi Wendy, great comment. I love fresh and frozen vegetables as well. But if we lose power we need our shelves stocked with canned goods. I think it’s interesting that you had a lot of frozen produce, pasta, meats but the canned were picked over. I did hear freezers are very hard to find. In some places, people are on a waiting list for a freezer. Wow! Then you can’t find canning jars, canning supplies, and even dehydrators. Now, you can’t even get FoodSaver accessory hoses or lid sealer wide or regular. Thank goodness you and I were ready and prepared. Linda

      Reply

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