By Sophie Sullivan
Media Production Editor
While stores across America continue to be picked over by waves of panic-stricken consumers concerned about potential food shortages, farmers are witnessing a severe drop in the demand for fresh produce. Thousands of restaurants, hotels, and schools closed to the public, meaning the need for produce has dropped significantly, leaving farmers with no choice other than to discard or recycle their surpluses. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk, while fresh tomatoes and beans are being plowed back into the soil as fertilizer. In Idaho, pits and ditches are being dug to bury excess onions. Large dairy corporations estimate nearly four million gallons of milk are being dumped each day, and almost a million eggs smashed per week.
Under normal conditions, large-scale consumers of America’s produce – college campuses, chain restaurants, etc. – buy supplies of food on a weekly basis, ensuring that producers will be able to sell their products. But with the coronavirus keeping millions of Americans sheltered-in-place, many are preparing their meals at home rather than ordering take out. In turn, farmers cannot afford the cost of harvesting their produce if they are not assured it will be sold. In an interview, vegetable grower Kim Jamerson told NPR that her farm was forced to plow crops back into the ground, explaining that workers “cannot pick produce if we cannot sell it, because we cannot afford the payroll every week.” In response, the workers have begun salvaging some crops and selling them at drastically reduced prices to consumers or food banks. Initially, some restaurants and stores continued to collect their usual supply of food and stored the excess in refrigerators and freezers, but they eventually had to limit future orders. The finely-tuned chain of supply and demand between farmers and their buyers has been shattered, forcing production timelines to be reconsidered. The result is a staggering amount of food waste.
Farmers are not the only ones finding difficulty staying afloat – food banks are struggling to keep up with an increase in demand. Rising unemployment has resulted in more Americans living with food insecurity and relying on food banks for meals than ever, yet donations have plummeted as more and more grocery stores and people are simply unable to donate. Further exacerbating the situation, many volunteers are staying home to prevent transmission, leaving food banks both undersupplied and understaffed.
Though not financially practical in the long term, some farms have been able to donate their produce directly to charity organizations. Many food banks have even begun buying products directly from vegetable and poultry farms; however, farmers are simply unable to give all of their excesses to food banks, as they still need to pay workers and make a profit.
(Sources: National Geographic, NPR, NYT, Politico)