After stepping up during pandemic, food retailers are asking policymakers to help them

File photo Linda Doherty of the New Jersey Food Council.

When New Jersey’s grocery shoppers enter their local food store or supermarket, they expect to walk the aisles filled with fresh food and fully stocked shelves. This is what consumers take for granted as “normal.”

But, for the retailers who make sure consumers have the products they need, things are anything but normal. There remain supply-chain issues across many sectors of the consumer economy, as well as an ongoing struggle to find workers who are up for the demands of the 24-hour operation to feed New Jersey.

The supermarket industry — like other essential businesses — has stood on the front lines in the days, weeks and months of this lingering pandemic to ensure the stores remained open.  We were there at all hours, and even joined in the effort of delivering COVID vaccines as part of the massive rollout earlier this year.

As the global supply chain remains tight, profit margins are thinner than ever because of inflation. The cost of food last month increased 6.2%, compared to October 2020 — the greatest single-year jump in the memories of anyone. Meat, fish, eggs, bread and cheese — the staples of the typical kitchen — are facing some of the highest spikes. Grocers try to absorb costs and insulate consumers from price shocks, but there is only so much that can be done when costs increase so quickly and dramatically.

The situation can be overwhelming for the food industry; yet, your local market remains open, serving the masses, as a proud essential service.  Now is the time that New Jersey’s food retail industry could use help from our policymakers, as we share with them the pressing challenges of this industry.

The biggest issue facing food retailers is a significant worker shortage. Supermarket offer good-paying, stable positions, often with some of the best companies to work for in the country. Retailers have raised wages, offered bonuses and even provided perks such as tuition assistance, but positions remained unfilled. Shelves cannot be stocked and stores cannot remain open without dedicated workers. And, with the growth in demand for online grocery shopping and delivery, there is an even greater need for employees to fulfill these orders.

Although there is little that our state Legislature can do about the various issues impacting the supply chain and price increases, it can take action to not make matters worse. There are several bills pending in the Legislature right now that would hamper the daily delivery of food and further increase costs to consumers.

For example, a proposal to enact new “recycled content” requirements for rigid plastic and glass containers, beverage containers, carryout bags and plastic trash bags will increase the price of goods and add more hurdles towards sourcing food-grade materials. There’s another proposal to enact fines against retailers that mislabel produce as “locally grown.” It would levy a hefty price on stores for what is too often an unintended oversight in the rush to serve customers.

Gov. Phil Murphy and other top state lawmakers have consistently praised the “essential” food industry for its resiliency and dedication during a pandemic that has dragged 20 months. And rightly so. This industry has stepped up whenever asked and will continue to do so. But we need our state lawmakers as partners in fulfilling the ongoing mission of feeding New Jersey.

The challenges are significant. As our industry battles with the instability of the supply chain and ongoing struggles in recruiting consistent labor, let’s work together on policies that strengthen the food industry.

Everyone needs help sometimes. The food retail industry hopes that relief, not more regulation, is on the way.

Linda Doherty is the president of the New Jersey Food Council.