SEBRING — Highlands County shoppers, thankfully, have not seen the extensive supermarket shortages seen in other parts of the country.

That’s not to say that they haven’t seen empty shelves. Meat, dairy, juice, cereal and other basic ingredient departments in local chain supermarkets had empty shelves or big gaps on Wednesday, including cream cheese, an item plagued nationally by shortages since before the holidays.

Local stores had no shortage of shoppers, though, and most shelves were either fully or partially stocked, but shortages have been reported nationwide, thanks to the fast-spreading COVID-19 omicron variant, severe weather, supply chain struggles and labor shortages. The Associated Press (AP) reports that these issues have affected produce and meat supplies, as well as packaged goods such as cereal.

On any given day, U.S. grocery stores typically have 5% to 10% of their items out of stock, AP reports, but now that unavailability rate is hovering around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman.

SupplyWith more Americans eating at home, especially as some offices and schools remain closed, grocery stores have seen a spike in purchases. The average U.S. household spent $144 per week on groceries last year, according to FMI, a trade organization for grocery stores and food producers. That was down from $161 in 2020, AP reports, but far above the $113.50 per week spent in 2019.

The national deficit of truck drivers, which started before the pandemic, reached 80,000 drivers in October, according to the American Trucking Associations. Shipping remains delayed, AP reports, affecting everything from imported foods to printed packaging.

Retailers and food producers started adjusting in early 2020 to panic buying at the start of the pandemic, AP reported, and have since kept better supplies on hand for items like toilet paper, to avoid acute shortages. Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group, said all of the players in the chain can navigate basic fluctuations, but additional complications have stacked up.

OmicronAs with hospitals, schools and offices, the omicron variant has hurt food production lines and grocery stores, AP reports. Sean Connolly, the president and CEO of Conagra Brands, maker of Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that omicron-related absences will constrain U.S. plant production for at least the next month.

Meanwhile, Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s supermarket chain in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, said that 8% of his workers — 200 people — were either out sick or in quarantine last week.

Typical absenteeism is more like 2%, Leonard said, but he’s getting shipments on time, and believes the worst of the pandemic may be over.

Fire and iceSnowstorms in the Northeast and wildfires in Colorado have cut product availability and caused some shoppers to stock up more than usual. Lisa DeLima, a spokesperson for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent grocer in the mid-Atlantic region, said weather halts last weekend’s resupply shipments to her stores last weekend, but said that bottleneck has since been resolved and don’t compare to shortages at the beginning of the pandemic.

“People don’t need to panic buy,” DeLima said. “There’s plenty of product to be had. It’s just taking a little longer to get from point A to point B.”

Dankert also thinks this is a hiccup, but Freeman said omicron could expand disruptions as the variant hits Midwest-based packaged food companies. Freeman wants to see more federal help getting workers access to tests and standardizing quarantining rules.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for food industry association FMI, said buying-pattern fluctuation will also be a challenge.

“We went from a just-in-time inventory system to unprecedented demand on top of unprecedented demand,” Baker said. “We’re going to be playing with that whole inventory system for several years to come.”

Associated Press writers Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Parker Purifoy in Washington, D.C., and Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.

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