One day, the Westbrook School Department’s nutrition staff finds that their food order has arrived with no juice. The next day, it’s graham crackers.

Meanwhile, over in Portland, a partially completed highway bridge project will be put off until next year, leaving residents to keep picking their way through a construction zone.

What do these two problems have in common?

They are both examples in disruptions to supply chains – the processes by which manufactured goods and materials get to the right places at the right time.

These disruptions are an economic symptom of the COVID pandemic. Changes in behavior by people all over the world are affecting the global economy in ways that ripple back to Maine.

We saw all saw the evidence of supply chain disruption last year, in the early days of the pandemic when goods like toilet paper suddenly disappeared from store shelves.

Some blamed the shortages on consumer panic, but supply chain experts said a bigger problem was altered behavior. Toilet paper intended for home use is packaged and distributed differently from the product used in institutions. More people spending more time at home and less time at work, school or other public places meant there was a shortage of the product home-use version and a surplus of the other kind. The demand changed instantly but it took businesses some time to adjust.

The supply chain problems experienced in Maine are really global. For instance, a reported shortage of shipping containers in Chinese ports means fewer products are being sent to companies around the world that use them. And a shortage of materials in German factories is slowing down production – slowing down the German economy, which is the engine of Europe’s.

Meanwhile ships loaded with goods are piling up in American ports for a variety of reasons including a lack of truck drivers who can move the cargo to the customers.

These shortages depress the ability of employers to bounce back from what should have been temporary pandemic slowdowns. For consumers, that means fewer choices and higher prices.

In Westbrook, as well as in schools across the state, food suppliers cannot guarantee when items will be available.

Schools are rewriting their menus and stocking up on the products that are available, but even then they can’t be sure that their suppliers will have the staff needed to make deliveries.

In Portland, the Maine Department of Transportation is putting off the I-295 bridge over Veranda Street for a year because they can’t get enough geofoam blocks that are needed to fill the ground under the new bridge’s structure.

“A national resin shortage is slowing our ability to obtain the additional material we’ll need in order to get the site ready for the accelerated bridge construction process,” MDOT Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor said in a statement.

COVID started this cascade of events and COVID is making these problems linger.

The solution is going to be managing COVID, getting people back into the workforce and recognizing that our efforts don’t end at our borders.

In the meantime, we all need to be patient – even when our lunches come with no graham crackers.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.