Ain’t no thing, but a chicken wing . . . and a national shortage of the finger food

The domino effects of the shut down now have caused a chicken wing shortage, as another sign of food insecurity issues to come.

One of the best aspects of summer is sitting outside in the warm sun with friends, your favorite music playing in the background, sipping a can of ice-cold beer, and munching on barbecued chicken wings fresh off the grill.

Except this summer, chicken wings are in short supply, on backyard grills, in restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.

A combination of factors created the shortage. During the pandemic “lockdown” which resulted in “non-essential” employees working from home and feeling anxious about the new COVID-19 virus, people turned to comfort foods, like chicken wings, literally eating into the supply. As well, poultry farms became hot spots for the novel coronavirus, causing many plants to shutter.

An unexpected winter storm in Texas this past February killed millions of chickens. The storm hit in the days leading up to Superbowl Sunday, an event in which eating chicken wings is part of the traditional viewing experience. According to the National Chicken Council, this year’s football season grand finale saw fans consume 1.42 billion chicken wings.

The pandemic closed many eateries or limited them to carryout sales. But, some continued to make money even if their chicken wings supply was dwindling. In a statement to an online health and wellness website, Tom Super, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council,  wrote that restaurants, bars, and the public generally, were having difficulty keeping up with demand for chicken wings. 

“Restaurants like wing joints and pizza places were built around takeout and delivery, so they didn’t have to change their business model that much during a pandemic,” Super wrote in his statement. He added that chickens only have two wings each. “Producers don’t raise chickens just for the wings, they have to sell all the other parts as well,” said Super.

| Read: Ultimate list of Black farmers offering selling beef, pork, chicken and other meats for your barbecues and holiday jaunts

Processing plants have had trouble meeting the demand for chicken wings. They don’t have enough workers to clean, cut, process, and package chicken wings, which contributed to supply reduction. It also increased the price of wings.  In the northeast area of the U.S., chicken wings are usually $1.50 to $1.70 per pound. Because of the shortage, wings can now cost $3.00 or $4.00 per pound. The price increases are passed on to the consumer when restaurants increase the costs of their chicken wings. And that’s if they have any.

One meat processor, Tyson, blamed chicken wing shortages on the kinds of roosters it had been using, saying a particular breed helped produce offspring which were better quality meat. But this year apparently the chickens weren’t as enamored with the roosters. As a result, hatch rates were low, contributing to chicken shortages.

So, what’s a chicken wing lover to do? There are alternatives, such as spicy buffalo cauliflower, buffalo ranch fries, buffalo oven-baked goat cheese fries, buffalo chicken sliders, buffalo mac ‘n cheese, and spicy chicken meatballs. There are vegan chicken wings made from wheat gluten, tofu, or a combination of both.

If the meatless alternatives do nothing to eliminate the craving for actual chicken, consumers can learn to love dark meat.   A report by CoBank, a national cooperative that provides financial services to farms and other rural entities, says dark meat chicken, consisting of legs and thighs, is becoming more popular than white meat chicken, the breasts and wings. Millennials, the largest U.S. generational group, can’t get enough of dark meat, according to the report. While Baby Boomers, the second largest generational group, tend to eat more white meat, or no meat at all. The report notes that dark chicken meat is a significant part of Asian and Latino diets.

Which works out fine for Wingstop, a national restaurant chain specializing in chicken wings. It is addressing the wings shortage by marketing another chicken part in its place: chicken thighs.

To navigate the limited supply of its central protein, Wingstop launched Thighstop on Monday, June 21. The thighs are cooked and seasoned the same way as the wings. There is a catch: Thighstop only offers this product online.  

Wingstop is pleased with the price of chicken thighs compared to that of chicken wings. Charlie Morrison, Chair and CEO of Wingstop Restaurants Inc., recently told CNN Business that chicken thighs cost half of what chicken wings cost per pound. “It’s a meaningful difference,” he said.

Chicken lovers can take heart, throw another chicken thigh on the grill, and open a can of ice-cold beer to enjoy with it, because their favorite meat isn’t completely finger lickin’ gone.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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