Near-empty shelves line a grocery store in Kelowna this week, following catastrophic flooding in British Columbia.
Near-empty shelves line a grocery store in Kelowna this week, following catastrophic flooding in British Columbia.
Rosedale Grocery ran out of milk around 1 p.m. on Tuesday. The store in Rosedale, B.C., a little farming town about two hours east of Vancouver, didn't receive a shipment all day Tuesday. The produce truck didn't show, neither did the dairy truck or the truck carrying non-perishables, all due to floods that have choked off highway access for much of the province's lower mainland.

"When we ran out of milk, that was kind of the nervous point," Rosedale Grocery manager Caitlin Lajeunesse said. "We had to have someone set up at our front door, just to not let people in because you couldn't move in the store, there was so many people."

Provincial authorities and retail industry leaders have tried to talk down a wave of panic buying in B.C. stores since Tuesday, amid fears that washed-out roads and rail lines could result in temporary shortages, including dairy.

Bread is empty. As soon as we get bread in, it leaves

"We understand that these are very uncertain times, and stressful times, and are asking our customers to maintain normal shopping habits," Darrell Jones, president of B.C. grocery chain Save-on-Foods, said in a video posted to Twitter on Thursday.

Empire Co. Ltd., which operates 81 supermarkets across the province under the Safeway, Thrifty Foods and FreshCo banners, on Thursday said it had been able to send delivery trucks to all its stores in the affected regions.

"Within the next 24 to 48 hours, we will start to see more shipments arrive at our stores in the impacted areas," said spokesperson Jacquelin Weatherbee.

Shoppers did "stock up" on non-perishables and toilet paper, she said, but can expect stocks to start improving by the weekend.

"It will take some time for us to get back to normal levels," she said. "Our teams are working around the clock to make this happen."

Holger Schwichtenberg, chair of the BC Dairy Association, told Reuters on Thursday that dairy farmers in the region had to dump a few million litres of milk because roughly three quarters of B.C.'s dairy production was stranded for days due to the floods.

"We need people to keep their head," said Lenore Newman, director of the University of the Fraser Valley's Food and Agriculture Institute. "It's not like the pandemic where it was everywhere. This is a local crisis and Canada's food systems are designed to adapt to local disruption."

Severe flooding in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, means a significant portion of the province's dairy, poultry and egg production will be down for several weeks or even months, Newman said, though she stressed that the national supply management system will be able to reallocate product to the province.

"In the short term there's going to be a little bit of bumpiness because we don't have any roads functioning, except through the U.S.," she said.

At Rosedale Grocery, at the base of Mount Cheam about 75 kilometres from Abbotsford, a dairy shipment arrived on Wednesday, after one lane of Highway 7 opened to essential traffic. The store got two skids of milk — double the typical order — and by Thursday afternoon it was getting low again.

"Probably by 4 p.m., we'll be out and then it'll come again tomorrow," Lajeunesse said. "Normally we get one skid and that comes every three days. To go through two skids in one day is quite a lot. But no one's hoarding it. Everyone's buying their one or two jugs and being really good about it."

Judging from the hardest-hit categories, she said it seemed many people were shopping to feed a crowd, since many locals are currently housing people from Abbotsford. Pasta and baking supplies were low on Thursday.

"Bread is empty," she said. "As soon as we get bread in, it leaves."

East West Express Inc., a trucking company headquartered in Calgary that hauls food products, hasn't been able to get a truck into B.C. from Alberta since Saturday.

"It's a real mess," said co-owner Lance De Waal. "I've never seen anything like it .... We have road closures all the time. But we don't get road closures that shut down every major highway for over a week. It's never happened."

The floods won't just impact B.C. grocers, he said. For example, East West hauls imported food that comes through the Port of Vancouver to small, independent Asian grocers across Western Canada. "They won't be able to get anything into their stores," he said.

— With additional reporting from Reuters