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For most other products vaporized by pandemic demand, supplies are bouncing back. Manufacturers are catching up, or the spike is subsiding. But scooping up a bag of flour still often depends on dumb luck, even as packaged bread and other flour-based processed foods remain abundant. It doesn’t take much detective work to figure out where it’s all going: Facebook has been flooded with photos of homemade focaccias, pancakes, and banana breads. On Twitter, people are on their third or fourth wave of backlash to sourdough as a concept. Americans are baking a ton, and the nation’s flour supply has fallen victim to our newfound hobby.
The story of the missing flour seems to be different from reports of hoarding, black markets, or panic buying that have caused other persistent shortages during the pandemic. Faced with the quick collapse of the country’s robust convenience economy, which has adapted to feeding people millions of sandwich-bread slices, burger buns, croissants, and pizza crusts every day, Americans have been forced to confront a fundamental bargain that the food system had made on their behalf: The broad availability of prepared and processed foods means that a lot of people have no idea what they’re doing in the kitchen. Now millions of people are hurtling backward into an existence where frequent breadmaking feels like an elemental part of American life.
For flour manufacturers, the deluge has come in two separate waves. In mid-March, flour shelves thinned out, but mostly didn’t empty, as people were stocking up on all kinds of staples they’d need to stay home for a few weeks of regular cooking. “It was very similar to what you’d see during a hurricane, except it was happening all over the United States,” says Brent Minner, a marketing director for Hometown Food Company, which owns the White Lily, Pillsbury, Arrowhead Mills, and Martha White brands of flour. The real flour rush began in late March, as it became clear that states’ initial stay-at-home orders would likely be extended. Minner says market-wide demand shot up more than 160 percent, with no signs of abating: “We are making the flour as fast as we possibly can and shipping it to our customers, and it’s flying off the shelves as soon as it gets there.”
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This sudden demand has thrown a wrench into the flour distribution process. In America’s industrialized-food supply chain, getting ingredients to the people who want them depends on far more than availability of the food itself. Supplies of wheat have actually remained abundant for flour brands, because less is being sent to restaurants and industrial bakeries. But brands are competing with one another to source the paper bags that consumer flour is packed in, as well as the trucks and drivers necessary to move it around the country. Bags of flour are big and bulky, and are allotted relatively little space on store shelves. And there’s the matter of making the flour—factories can ramp up their production only so much and still keep employees safe.