Spartan alumnus bullish on durability of America’s food supply chain despite pandemic

Aug 24, 2020

We're talking about grocery bills. Has yours has been higher than you’d like recently? The stress on our nation's food supply chain has certainly been unprecedented. While farmers and food producers struggle with supply and demand issues, consumers are continuing to see rising grocery prices. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery bills shot up by 2.6% in April, the largest spike since 1974. And those price increases haven't let up. From farm to table COVID-19 has placed added stress on everyone's plate. 

To help us better understand these complex issues, I’m joined by Spartan alumnus Dustin Baker, Class of 2012 from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Today he works as the manager for education and research at Commodity & Ingredient Hedging, LLC in Chicago. 

“There are really two main drivers of these issues. While they're intertwined, they're really separate from one another. The first one occurred when stay at home orders went into place and people immediately began shifting the way that they consumed products, food included. The second major impact came from the proliferation of COVID cases in meat packing plants around the country. And they're really two separate issues that had differing impacts on different commodities. If we look at the first one, when people were forced to stay at home, businesses, restaurants, and schools shut down. People changed where they were consuming their food and other products. We saw this in toilet paper. When people were stocking up to limit the number of trips to the store. And it was really confusing to some because were people all of a sudden going to be consuming more toilet paper? The answer to that was no, but they were changing where they were consuming that toilet paper.

“And the same was true for food, where rather than eating outside of the home, people were consuming most if not all of their meals at home. People consume food differently at home than they do away from home. In 2019 about 55 percent of total food expenditures were on meals away from home. We saw a major increase in demand at the grocery store in March and April for staples like bread, eggs, milk, and ground meat.”

Baker tells why despite increased demand at the grocery store and higher prices for dairy and beef products, farmers are often forced to dump milk or slaughter cattle before they reach production. And he talks about whether we may see fewer choices for consumers in the coming months. And Baker says food insecurity has impacted more people during the pandemic.

“When we talk about food insecurity, we're talking about people who don't have access to the correct mix of calories we all need in order to live an active and healthy lifestyle throughout the year. And unfortunately, here in the United States, we have a pretty significant issue with food security. Even in a normal year without a pandemic, one in six households with children is food insecure at some point throughout the year.”

Baker says “the million-dollar question” right now is what long term impact the pandemic will have on the food supply chain and consumer behavior. “Ultimately producers will increase the choices that consumers have to feed themselves and their families.”

What about any silver linings in this situation? Any areas of innovation that will flourish as a result of the pandemic? For example, some economists have said that despite the challenges faced, our national food supply has proven to be resilient.

“I don't want to minimize the impact that rising grocery store prices have had on consumers, especially those who are struggling, because it's real and it's not trivial. In March over 50 percent of Americans were buying food online. It'll be interesting to watch the future of e-food commerce and whether it evolves into access to fresh and affordable food for consumers around the country.

“Every single day farmers are out producing food and manufacturers are out making the food and making it into consumer-packaged goods. Even though it might be uncomfortable to see a shelf bare at the store because we're not used to seeing that in the United States, rest assured it's being made behind the scenes and there'll be more tomorrow if it's not there today. 

Baker talks about how attending MSU was the right choice for him and how agriculture is a high-tech field more young people should consider for careers.

“I think it's really cool to be a part of something bigger than myself like MSU. I see my classmates who day in day out do the research on the genetics of food and of the plants and animals that we eat. They work to ensure that people have access to fresh and affordable food around the country. They work to make sure that the rules of the game are set up from a regulatory framework in Washington, D.C., such that competition rules and consumers have choice. And so I think that's pretty awesome to be a part of that land grant mission, even in my own simple way.

“And it extends beyond the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, too. MSU is full of people who are elite but not elitist. I see that every time I look at classmates who are out teaching the next generation of leaders or working on criminal justice reform in their own communities or researching the next big medical breakthrough. It makes me really proud to be part of that. One of the greatest achievements in my short life so far is being a Spartan and having that comradery with other Spartans around the country.

“I like to say that there is job security in agriculture. People have to eat. People might not go to the doctor every day or they may not go to a classroom every single day, but they typically eat three times a day. Agriculture is here to stay. It's definitely at the forefront of technological breakthroughs. And I think it's a fun thing to be a part of. And it's a good story to tell because everyone has great connections to food. You sit down with families and eat. We center holidays around food. We center football games and tailgating around food. So, It's a really interesting aspect of the economy to be involved with.”

MSU Today airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 on 105.1 FM, AM 870, and wherever you stream at home. Follow and subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.