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Some B.C. grocers scramble to stock shelves after weather disaster

Storm puts a spotlight on already fraught food supply chain, and local suppliers are helping to fill gaps
Shutterstock/Steeve Raye

Some grocery store shelves in the West Kootenay were empty of milk, produce, bread and meat for more than a week last month, as supply-chain problems emptied shelves of stock.

Panic purchasing by some even forced a Slocan Valley gas station to shut down for a few hours after hoarders began buying up all the fuel.

Store owners and managers say the disruption, caused by the storm disaster that hit the Lower Mainland, has hurt their bottom line.

"We're in the business of selling groceries," says Keith Steenhoff, the co-owner of New Market Foods in New Denver. "If you don't have groceries to sell, it hurts a lot."

Intercity trucking ground to a halt in much of the province on November 15, after torrential rains and mudslides swept away parts of Highways 1, 3, 7, 99 and the Coquihalla. It was a week before even essential traffic could get through Highway 3, and access to the Lower Mainland for the rest of Canada is not expected to return to normal for months, if not years.

The closing of the highways meant trucks carrying the food grocers sell couldn't make it through.

"We usually get three shipments a week, they come out of Vancouver. Basically from the 15th, it's been a struggle to get anything," says Steenhoff. "We pretty much ran out of produce, except what we could get locally, and the same with milk and meat."

Steenhoff says his main supplier has cleared up a computer glitch that made things worse, and shipments from the wholesaler's Alberta warehouse have started arriving. But it could be at least a week before things return to normal.

The story was similar at the south end of the Slocan.

"It was a little dicey for a couple of days there, a fair bit of uncertainty about what we were going to be able to get our hands on, and when we were going to be able to get it," says James Mattson, manager of Evergreen Natural Foods in Crescent Valley. "We had to do a lot of thinking on our feet."

"Silly" panic buying

For shoppers, it was a repeat of the early days of the pandemic, with people scrambling for milk, meat and bread, which is mostly supplied from the Lower Mainland. While most people took the shortages calmly, there were instances of panic buying.

One store owner told the Valley Voice they had to put limits on dairy products, while at the Slocan Park Co-op, the gas pumps ran dry when locals started hoarding gas.

"People were coming with 10 jerry cans and filling them up," says Co-op manager Tina Andersen. "If people weren't so silly and hoarding, we wouldn't have run out of gas. We have an uninterrupted supply coming in from the East."

The irony, she says, is that a fuel truck was arriving later that day. But they had to close the gas bar for a few hours after the panic buyers emptied their tanks.

Some businesses were not hit as hard. At Kaslo's Front Street Market, supplies mostly come from Alberta, and they just needed to find new sources for milk and dairy products, says manager Dave McCowan.

"We have access to different wholesalers," says McCowan. "We primarily draw from TGP, The Grocery People, and we also utilize Associated Grocers, and both those warehouses are in Alberta."

McCowan says his customers have been pretty level-headed.

"Our customers have been really calm through this, considering what you've seen in the media of empty shelves in harder-impacted locations," he says. "I want to thank them for not resorting to the panic buying. We're continuing to work with our suppliers to ensure we maintain the product they're looking for."

Local suppliers fill gap

While Front Street Market's interprovincial sources remained steady, Vancouver-supplied stores had to rely more heavily on alternative suppliers. In New Denver, they sourced pork from Salmon Arm, chicken from the North Okanagan, and some root vegetables from Edgewood.

"We have a pretty good network of local suppliers, so we were at least able to keep essentials and food in the store. Just not the variety people expect us to have," says Steenhoff. "We've come to expect this food will just show up. I think this has been an eye-opener for some people."

"We have a lot of local suppliers, so we didn't have to do sourcing," says the Co-op's Andersen. While deli meats got scarce for nearly two weeks, she was able to find both local sources for milk, and work with her chain for other supplies. "It was really nice I had that information to give out to customers about what we were getting, and when we were getting it."

In Kaslo, McCowan also credits their relationship with local producers for helping their business keep the lights on.

"I'm really proud of the ability of our staff to source out products," he says. "When this all started back with COVID, when we saw supply chains interrupted, my management team was resourceful in finding new vendors, and we've established those relationships which has definitely helped us today."

At Evergreen Natural Foods in Crescent Valley, Mattson says keeping their supply chains flexible and short also paid off—though the produce section was pretty thin for several days. He says there's a lesson to be learned from this experience.

"This sort of weather event just demonstrates to me how we have to re-think how we're organizing our food distribution systems and the logistics behind it," says Mattson. "We have to implement the right policies to enable a vibrant local food economy wherever you are. We need to figure this out, because these sorts of events are happening more frequently, more extremely and more unpredictably."

Local food production advocates have been saying for years that the region has to have a more robust food-producing capacity. Last month's weather event may be a sign that the time is at hand to act on the plans they've developed.

"We may not ever be food self-sufficient per se," says Mattson. "But as far as we can go in that direction is good."

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