Out-of-stock notifications like this one at Helena's Costco have become common as shoppers stockpile to prepare for social distancing. Credit: Sierra Richmond / MTFP

As Montana’s bout with the global COVID-19 outbreak ramps up, bare grocery store shelves have joined tense press conference broadcasts, school closures, and restaurant shutdowns as new-normal indicators of the pandemic’s fallout in Montanans’ day-to-day lives.

But even as toilet-paper-hoarding memes flood Facebook feeds, store managers and other food system experts say that, at least for the time being, understocked shelves are a result of unanticipated consumer demand — not disruption of the production of food or household essentials.

“In the short-term, it’s really more of a distribution and food environment issue,” said Selena Ahmed, a sustainable food systems professor at Montana State University. “What we’re seeing in the grocery store is not a reflection of the entire food system.”

The issue, Ahmed and others said this week, is that the steady flow of news about the outbreak pushed Montanans to stock up on household essentials, outstripping the volumes stores were prepared to meet. New stories about shortages and images of empty shelves shared on social media sent even more people to stores, exacerbating the situation.

“It really depends on the public’s perception of what’s going on, and how long it’s going to go on for.”

— Bozeman, Town and Country Foods manager Eric Drake

In turn, shortages have rippled down the supply chain, with regional wholesalers facing their own shortfalls, and in some cases rationing what they provide to stores. 

Jeff Reiter, who owns Cut Bank Big Sky Foods in north-central Montana, said he’s doing everything he can to keep bread, toilet paper, and other goods in stock for his customers. But the reality is that there isn’t much store managers can do beyond pushing their usual distribution center or casting around for new suppliers.

“We’re waiting for a truck tomorrow, and what’s going to be on that truck is a roll of the dice,” Reiter said Wednesday.

In Bozeman, at the Town and Country Foods store adjacent to the MSU campus on 11th Avenue, manager Eric Drake said he had been expecting a slow week as students and faculty left town for spring break. Instead, several days of coronavirus news saw the university switching to online classes and customers hunkering down and preparing to cook at home.

In response, Drake said, the store has tried to limit customer purchases to two of any particular item for most supplies, and has also reduced its advertising. Even so, he expects it will likely take weeks for the store to get caught up.

“It really depends on the public’s perception of what’s going on, and how long it’s going to go on for,” he said.

One step up the supply chain, Randy Linberg, who runs Bozeman-based Quality Foods Distributing, said he’s also in a scramble to adapt. Complicating his efforts, he said, is the fact that he’s been working from home-quarantine after returning from a trip to California and deciding to self-isolate.

Lindberg, whose organic products-focused company serves both restaurants and grocery stores, said his restaurant customers have been hit hard by Gallatin County’s March 16 order shutting down dine-in food service. That’s left him with a surplus of fresh produce intended for restaurant kitchens, though with grocers selling more he’s been able to redirect much of that product to them.

“We’re seeing extraordinary demand,” he said, adding that he’s been putting out urgent orders to his own suppliers. “People still need to eat.”

In eastern Montana, David Picchioni of Picchioni’s IGA in Forsyth said he’s seen days of record demand.

“I would bet that we sell more toilet paper this week than we did last year,” he said. A toilet paper shipment that arrived Wednesday morning was gone by 10 a.m., he added, even though the store limited customers to one pack each.

“I’ve never experienced that Black Friday mentality,” said Picchioni, who comes from a family that has been in the grocery business in Roundup for nearly a century.

In recent days, he’s seen customers come from as far away as North Dakota, he added.

“Sales would be even better if we had half the stuff they were looking for,” he said.

“What we’re seeing in the grocery store is not a reflection of the entire food system.”

—Selena Ahmed, sustainable food systems professor at Montana State University

Both Drake and Picchioni said shortages at their respective stores mean customers have less choice. At the Bozeman Town and Country, Drake said, empty stretches of shelves mean some customers haven’t been able to buy their preferred brands. In Forsyth, Picchioni said, shoppers who normally buy bargain-priced IGA canned vegetables are resorting to more expensive Del Monte and Green Giant offerings.

As stores and customers navigate food shortages, MSU professor Ahmed said she’s most concerned about lower-income households and elders who don’t necessarily have the ability to stock up on food, people in lower-income rural and tribal communities in particular. She’s also worried about hourly workers in the food-service sector who are losing their paychecks as anti-coronavirus measures shutter their workplaces.

If the coronavirus outbreak lasts long enough, she said, the concern becomes whether it begins to disrupt food production as illness or public health measures get in the way of planting or harvesting crops. For example, she said, she’s concerned about measures that restrict the movement of migrant farmworkers. 

Access to fertilizer and other agricultural inputs is also a concern. After President Trump announced the closure of the U.S.-Canadian border to non-essential travel Wednesday, for example, the Billings Gazette reported that Montana ag leaders have been working with federal agencies and the state’s congressional delegation to ensure that Montana farmers can import nitrogen from a major supplier in Alberta.

In the long run, Ahmed said, it’s highly processed foods with globalized manufacturing chains that are more likely to be disrupted than crops that are grown and processed closer to home. Even a product like canned tomatoes, she said, has multiple ingredients, each with their own supply chains ripe for interruption: the tomatoes themselves, any spices added by the manufacturer, and the cans in which they’re packaged.

In contrast, she said, lentils grown with local manure are a less vulnerable product.

“You have a lot more control,” she said.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.