Food Distribution 101: What Happens When the Food Supply is Disrupted by a Pandemic

As farmers are forced to dump food and food banks are struggling to feed millions, an explainer on U.S. food supply and distribution.

“It’s like Armageddon, but we’ll get through it,” Benjamin Walker explained over the phone in mid-March. That day, sales at Baldor—the New York-based food distribution company where Walker is the vice president of sales and marketing—had dropped by 85 percent.

With 90 percent of its business focused on food service, Baldor’s 400 trucks are typically loaded with specialty produce, meats, and baked goods bound for restaurants, hotels, schools, and stadiums in New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In other words, its food goes to all of the institutions that have been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The shimmer of hope for us is the 10 percent of retail [sales we were already doing],” Walker said. “That’s really the only food channel operating at the moment, and that supply chain has been maxed out.” Over the last months, Walker and his team have been acting quickly to onboard new accounts and reroute those trucks.

As shoppers across the country have stockpiled food in anticipation of weeks or months of eating at home, there has been significant panic at the sight of empty shelves in grocery stores. Experts and food-industry groups have jumped in to assure the public, in various publications, that the American food supply was strong and those shelves do not reflect shortages. Instead, they were said to be a reflection of behind-the-scenes adjustments that need to be made by manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to keep up with where people are eating.

In the last few weeks, however, it has also become clear that the workers we rely on to harvest, process, stock, and deliver all this food are vulnerable to coronavirus—which means we will likelybegin to see gapsin the production system itself.

We’re also seeing large disparities where farmers, without their usual foodservice markets, are being forced todump milk, eggs, and produce—even while there is an urgent, unprecedented