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Despite empty store shelves, grocery association says supply chain ‘very strong’

Many Americans have encountered long lines and empty shelves at grocery stores recently. But the problem is not one of supply; rather, stores say that most shortages are temporary and due strictly to an unprecedented surge in buying, as panicked consumers rushed to stock up on items they feared might become scarce. Amna Nawaz talks to Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Anyone who has gone grocery shopping in the U.S. in recent days has likely encountered long lines and empty shelves.

    But, as Amna Nawaz reports, the problem right now is not one of supply.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, stores say that most shortages are temporary, and due strictly to an unprecedented surge in buying, as panicked consumers rushed to stock up on items they feared could soon be hard to find or hard to reach.

    So, how much product is in the pipeline, and when might shelves be restocked?

    To help answer those critical questions, Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association, which represents over 1,500 independent grocers, operating nearly 9,000 stores. He's here with us now.

    And thanks for being here.

  • Greg Ferrara:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So people will walk into stores and see empty selves. They're seeing these pictures all over social media. Why is that happening and how quickly are they being reshelved?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    So, great question.

    Our supply chain is experiencing a truly unprecedented event with this crisis. We have never seen levels like this across the United States. And that's actually impacting supply chains.

    So, when you go into a store, if you see empty shelves, it's taking us a while to get the product flowing through supply chain back to the stores. But it is coming. It is coming through our warehouses. It coming to the stores. There is plenty of supply in the supply chain.

    We just need time to catch up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, it's not the food isn't there; it's just getting it to the shelves?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    There's plenty of food. And there's plenty of food in the pipeline. We're getting to the shelves quickly. It's just going off the shelves as quickly as we get it on there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So talk to me and talk to consumers out there now who say, well, look, I'm trying to reduce the number of times I go to the store. I'm supposed to be social distancing. I will go now and buy a month's worth of groceries, instead of going every week.

    What's wrong with that approach?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    So, that's the problem. The problem is, we do have people who are buying a month's worth of groceries, as opposed to a week's worth of groceries.

    And we ask people just to remain calm. Buy what you need for this week for a week-and-a-half. Take care of yourself. And that will allow us to catch up, allow us to get the supply chain restocked, get product back on stores.

    And that also helps your neighbor, right? Your neighbor is looking for the same stuff you're looking for. Give us time. Buy what you need now. We want you to take care of yourself.And we will have product back on the shelves very soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We all have to take care of each other, right?

    What about ripple effects down the line, if transport is disrupted, if the food supply chain is disrupted further? The longer this goes on, can it be harder to resupply those shelves?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    So, here's the good thing about our food supply in the United States. For the most part, most of the food is produced domestically, and even regionally and locally.

    So, we have a very strong supply chain. That supply chain is — has a lot of redundancies in place. And so we feel very confident about that. We have also been working with the government, both federal, state and local, to ensure that grocery stores — food manufacturers are considered what we call tier one responders.

    So they're able to be essential workers. And we can get them to our plants, to our stores, and make sure the product is getting through to consumers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when you say tier one employees there, I wanted to ask you about some news I read in Vermont and Minnesota.

    They basically said, everyone who works in the grocery store is now an emergency worker. That means they're eligible for things like free child care, so they can go out and do their jobs. Should that be happening across the country?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    It is happening in different areas and different states. Every state is different.

    But it's been wonderful to see government really rally around the food sector and support our front-line workers who do an absolutely amazing job in the stores right now.

    And so our members, our industry is working with their state governments to ensure there's more benefits like that coming down the pike. And our stores are being thoughtful. They're working with their customers to the extent — excuse me — working with their employees to the extent they can and making sure they're supporting them throughout this time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you're looking for more of those workers right now; is that right?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    Absolutely.

    So we're absolutely looking for more workers, not only in our stores, but in our wholesale distribution centers as well. And this is a great opportunity for people who may be impacted, who may have lost their jobs or be temporarily — have seen a reduction in hours, go to your local supermarket. Look online.

    Look, these wholesale distributors that are out there, they're looking for workers. We'd love to have you at this time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me a little bit about how you're making sure those front-line workers, as you call them, are protecting themselves? Does everyone wear gloves? Are you wiping down product?

    Should customers be wiping down that product before they take it home?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    So, the most important thing is, we're following federal, state and local guidelines when it comes to protecting our employees, protecting our customers in the store.

    That includes making sure that, first and foremost, if a employee is sick, they are told not to come to work. And that goes for customers too. If you're not feeling well, please don't come in our stores.

    That's very important. But stores are wiping down check stands. They are wiping down handles on freezers, on refrigerators, doing a deep clean at night. You have seen many stores have adjusted hours, not only to allow them to restock, but allow them to do a deeper clean as well.

    And so we're taking precautions. We're making sure that everyone is safe and taken care of. And we look forward to continuing to serve our customers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, bigger picture, I have got to ask you, you see more people shopping online, as they're avoiding going into these public spaces and into stores.

    Do you see this moment in time as changing the way we shop for groceries?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    I definitely think we're obviously seeing an uptick in e-commerce and on — excuse me — in online orders both in terms of click and collect, but also in terms of delivery.

    And I do think we will see an uptick in that going forward. But people also do still enjoy going to the grocery store. They enjoy selecting their produce, selecting their meat. And I think that's going to continue for some time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bottom line, the food is there, don't panic, buy what you need?

  • Greg Ferrara:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Greg Ferrara of the National Grocers Association, thank you so much for being here.

  • Greg Ferrara:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And please join us tonight for our virtual town hall, "Confronting Coronavirus." That's at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 central on all PBS stations, streaming in the PBS app and on the "PBS NewsHour" social channels, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

    Some of your questions will be answered by those on the front lines battling the crisis, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who spoke about the president's decision today to fast-track some medicines in their earliest stages that are not yet proven.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    What you do is, you strike a balance between making something available to the public. At the same time, you do it under the auspices of a protocol.

    And it could be a relatively loose protocol, like an expanded access protocol, even do some compassionate usage, where you have a balance between getting things to people who need it, but, at the same time, not just throwing drugs out there that you don't know anything about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Join us tonight for "Confronting Coronavirus" right here on PBS at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Central.

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