As unemployment numbers continue to soar and economic uncertainty looms due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, food banks across the United States are experiencing a surge in demand.
At the same time, however, a parallel narrative has emerged as new reports and social media posts detail farmers dumping or throwing out produce, dairy and even animals destined for slaughter. With restaurants and other big venues closed, many farmers and food processors have lost their largest buyers.
Now, many are questioning why these surpluses can't be redirected to those in need. According to food industry experts, solving this problem isn't impossible, but it will require an efficient plan and help from the government.
“This year, the COVID-19 crisis is driving more of our neighbors into food insecurity and putting a strain on food banks to provide more meals,” Feeding America chief executive officer Claire Babineaux-Fontenot said in a statement last week. “Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbors during this terrible time.”
Feeding America, the country’s largest food-relief organization which oversees a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, said its food banks are experiencing “unprecedented strain” with 98% of all locations reporting an increase in demand since the coronavirus crisis took hold in the U.S. in early March. At the same time, more than half reported drops in inventory, higher operating expenses and dwindling donations.
As food banks struggle to keep inventories stocked amid skyrocketing demand, farmers across all industries are facing difficult decisions about how to handle the food they are unable to sell to former buyers. Dairy farmers in several states are reportedly dumping millions of gallons of milk every day, and individual farmers have destroyed thousands of eggs and millions of soybeans since the crisis took hold, the New York Times reported this week.
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In light of the competing struggles, Feeding America joined with the American Farm Bureau Federation of America on Monday to call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture for support in expanding partnerships and working relationships between the two sectors.
“As you are aware, food banks are under tremendous pressure to meet the skyrocketing demand,” the organizations wrote in a joint letter. “At the same time, however, we are seeing literally tons of agricultural goods being discarded because of the shutdown of so much of the economy.
“The unfortunate consequences include public panic about an adequate food supply and plunging prices for farm produce.”
To help meet the country’s pressing needs, the organizations recommended implementing a voucher program between farmers and food banks, which they said would allow them to do business together directly, instead of going through the usual process that involves third-party distributors, packing plants and possible long-distance travel.
When reached by email, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue reiterated to TODAY that this is a challenging time for Americans and commended individuals who have stepped up to help provide food to those in need. The agency head did not directly address the letter or proposed voucher recommendation from Feeding America and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“USDA is maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic,” Perdue said in an emailed statement.
The jarring contrast between the simultaneous need and waste of food highlights the challenges many producers are facing as they work to adapt supply chains while meeting the shift in demands triggered by measures put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“It is confusing, certainly when you see all that. That shift in headlines at one time,” Brian Coffey, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, told TODAY.
Coffey explained that we are now witnessing the truly complex nature of modern food supply chains at work, particularly the division between products packaged and distributed for the food service industry — places like restaurants, school cafeterias and entertainment venues which handle large volumes of food — versus goods meant for at-home consumption.
“The reality is when you have a disruption of this size, it is quite difficult in a lot of cases to pivot from one of those supply chains to another," he said.
To understand the complexities of the modern supply chain model, one can look to the various ways corn is used today. A corn farmer in Iowa will likely sell his crop to a (far away) distribution center, which then creates various shipments to a variety of retailers: some of that corn will be processed into corn syrup at one factory, some of that corn will be sold to a feedlot, where it will eventually wind up as cattle feed, some will be sold to snack manufacturers and some will simply be sold fresh.
The majority of big distributor accounts belong to retailers that make a lot of food for a lot of people (restaurants, hotels or schools). Distributors have been scrambling to set up new accounts with grocers who have seen a soaring recent demand, but the goods consumers want often differ vastly from what's historically sold to bigger retailers. That means adjustments need to be made at other levels of the supply chain, further slowing down the figurative farm-to-table process.
Paul Zieminsky, executive vice president of global innovation at the National Dairy Council, told TODAY one of the main challenges the dairy industry is dealing with is figuring out how to take milk used for one sector and move it to other places in the network. As soon as the pandemic began to disrupt the market last month, the industry immediately started looking at how to move milk to organizations in need, like food banks. But it’s all still a work in progress.
While consumer demands shifted quickly as people rushed to their local supermarkets to stock up on goods, the agriculture sector's supply chain is much less nimble. With schools shut down, for example, the dairy producers have had to find new buyers for the small cartons of milk typically distributed to cafeterias. Another option farmers are working through is reorganizing production processes to use the milk for other purposes, like making cheese or yogurt, but that requires additional labor which may not be available now.
There are also challenges cropping up in the livestock sector, with the spread of coronavirus forcing meat processing facilities to shut down. Even temporary closures will create problems, leaving farmers stuck with a glut of livestock and no plants to break down or package that meat, Virginia Tech agribusiness professor Olga Isengildina-Massa told TODAY.
“That would be very difficult for our livestock producers to handle,” she said. “They have to find a way to move these animals and, in a lot of cases, they may have to do it at a loss.”
Still, in the midst of fighting the pandemic, it’s hard to know what the full impact will be on the agriculture industry, or what type of long-lasting changes may come as a result.
Coffey said the crisis is already serving as a much-needed reminder of just how much labor it takes at every level to keep America's food supply chains running.
“I think the fact that we don't sit around and normally talk and think about this stuff is an indication of just how well these supply chains work in normal times,” he said. “What we've been reminded of here is when we change one little thing in these supply chains, so many other things are affected.”