Nati Harnik / AP
In recent days, senior US government officials have taken steps to assure Americans that they will not run out of food, despite the coronavirus.
While visiting a Walmart distribution center, Vice President Mike Pence announced that “the US food supply is solid.” FDA Assistant Food Commissioner Frank Yiannas (a former Walmart executive) told reporters on a teleconference that “there is no general or national food shortage, despite local reports from breakdowns “.
“There is no need to hoard,” said Yiannas.
In fact, the pandemic has caused entirely different problems: an increase in the number of people who cannot afford to shop and an overabundance of food where it is not needed.
Dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Georgia have been forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk that no one will buy. In Florida, vegetable producers are abandoning fields of tomatoes, yellow squash and cucumbers ready for harvest for the same reason.
“We can’t pick the produce if we can’t sell it because we can’t pay the payroll every week,” said Kim Jamerson, a market gardener near Fort Myers. These crops will be reinvested in the soil. “We will have to tear them apart,” says Jamerson. “Just rip beautiful vegetables that could really go elsewhere, in food banks, hospitals and nursing homes.” “
The country’s food distribution system, in normal times, is a wonder, efficiently supplying huge amounts of food to consumers. But it relies on predictability, like a rail system that directs a stream of trains, according to fixed schedules, to their destinations. Today, some of the biggest destinations – restaurant chains, schools and workplace cafeterias – have disappeared and supply chains are struggling to adapt.
Jay Johnson, along with JGL Produce, a vegetable broker in Immokalee, Florida, is the kind of person who makes this system work – matching buyers with sellers. “You receive phone calls, text messages, emails, all day and all night,” he says. “‘ What is your price on this? Which class? Can you get a better deal? ’You do all these micro-negotiations all day long. ”
Tuesday March 24, he said, everything changed. “Everything has become calm. Wednesday 25, super calm. Thursday we are getting nervous now. “
Normally, restaurant chains purchase a regular supply of produce, week after week. But most have closed – just as the Florida vegetable crop was speeding up. “Now you’re sitting there with all this production, perfect weather, and everyone is saying ‘Oh no’, ‘said Johnson.
He said to vegetable producer Mike Jamerson, Kim’s husband, “We have problems here. And this is the point where I’m going to fill my warehouse and I’m going to have to tell you to stop picking. “
It is happening now. Kim Jamerson says work in the fields “stopped on the yellow squash. I think we are about to stop the cucumbers. Peppers. These unharvested vegetables will rot in the fields.
Something similar happened to dairy farmers. Sales of milk in supermarkets have increased, but not enough to compensate for the drop in sales of milk to schools and cheese to Pizza Hut. Factories that make milk powder can no longer take milk. Some dairy cooperatives have therefore asked their farmers to throw away the milk their cows produce.
The situation is particularly dire for Florida tomato producers, who sell 80% of their production to restaurants and other food service companies, rather than supermarkets. “Think of all the sandwiches people eat for lunch when they go out. Burgers or salads in restaurants, “said Michael Schadler of the Florida Tomato Exchange, which represents some of the state’s largest producers. “Many of these food products have tomatoes. “
Schadler says producers are “already moving away from large parts of their crops”, canceling huge investments.
Meanwhile, food banks and pantries are struggling to provide enough food to those who need it, including millions of children who no longer receive free school meals and those who have lost their jobs in recent weeks.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, a network of food banks and charitable meal programs, explains that these programs normally receive large donations of unsold food from retail stores. In recent weeks, however, as retailers have struggled to keep their shelves in stock, “we are seeing a reduction of up to 35% in this flow of retail donations,” said Babineaux-Fontenot.
Food banks are trying to claim more of the food stuck in the food service supply chain, either through donations or by purchasing it.
“We are capturing part of that. I know we don’t capture it all, but we have a whole team of professionals whose job is to try to make sure we capture as many as possible, “Babineaux- Dit Fontenot. “So we have conversations with the main restaurants. We have conversations with the main producers, with professional associations, the whole range. “
Kim Jamerson thinks “it’s just a shame” to have enough food, but not to be able to provide it to those in need. “How can a woman with two children live on unemployment, go to a grocery store and pay 90 cents for a cucumber?” She just can’t do that. “
Part of the problem is that it takes work to move products from one place to another, and people are still trying to figure out who will pay for it. Jamerson says she cannot afford workers to choose a crop to be given. She wants government to step in, provide workers or money to pay them and make sure food gets where it is needed. “The government could send food to hospitals, nursing homes, food banks, churches,” she said.
Jay Johnson, the product broker, says there are signs of hope. Florida food banks, he says, are starting to buy some of his vegetables and are finding new ways to distribute them.
They asked Johnson to package some vegetables in smaller packages so that food banks did not need as many volunteers to repackage them. “They are understaffed and have no warehouse space, and they have to think creatively,” he said.
“I see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel here,” he said, adding that he will not make any money from these food bank sales. Neither will the farmers, but at least they will be able to keep their workforce until, hopefully, better times come.