As millions of Americans worry about having enough to eat and queues increase at food banks, farmers plow under fields of vegetables, pour milk and break eggs that cannot be sold because the coronavirus pandemic closed restaurants, hotels and schools.
Now the destruction of fresh produce on such a scale has prompted the Trump administration and state governments to act, as well as local efforts like a group of students hiring trucks to save unsold onions and eggs farms. But they will probably not be enough to solve the problem if the companies remain closed for months.
Over the next few weeks, the The Department of Agriculture will start spending $ 300 million a month to buy surplus vegetables, fruit, milk and meat from distributors and send them to food banks. Federal subsidies will also subsidize the crating of purchases and their transportation to charitable groups – tasks that farmers said they could not afford, giving them little choice but to destroy food.
The office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said New York would give food banks $ 25 million to buy products made from excess milk on state farms; the state is working with manufacturers like Chobani, Hood and Cabot to turn milk into cheese, yogurt and butter. Part of the state subsidy can also be used to buy apples, potatoes and other products that farms have in stock.
Nationally, the Dairy Farmers of America, the largest dairy cooperative in the United States, diverted nearly a quarter of a million gallons of milk to food banks.
“This is just a drop,” said Jackie Klippenstein, senior vice-president of the co-op. “But we had to do something. “
The closure of restaurants, hotels and school cafeterias has wiped out huge sources of demand for fresh produce, leaving farmers with millions of pounds of surplus. Although the increase in grocery sales offset some of this, not since the Great Depression, so much fresh produce has been destroyed. (In the 1930s, the problem was that people could not afford all the crops that farmers produced, which prompted the federal government to implement a food stamp program.)
Agriculture ministry subsidies are expected to be announced this week, but farmers say their losses far exceed what the subsidies can bring.
“These are not intractable problems,” said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University. “These are problems that require a lot of people, money and thought. If the government really wanted to make sure hungry people were fed and farmers were supported, it would find a way to do it. “
There are signs that the waste is starting to dissipate. In early April, farmers poured 3.7 million gallons of milk every day, emptying it into manure pits, where it mixed with fertilizer used in the fields. Now garbage is closer to 1.5 million gallons, says the dairy cooperative, as farmers cut production and restaurant chains like Papa John’s heed the industry’s call to add more cheese with each pizza.
Even though waste is decreasing for some foods, other farmers are struggling to find new buyers. California strawberry growers, for example, reach the peak harvest season in May.
“Time is not on our side,” said Mary Coppola, vice-president of the United Fresh Produce Association, a business group of fruit and vegetable producers and processors. “In my opinion, we are not offering the offer. chain logistics solutions as quickly as products increase. “
Some people, distressed by all the food waste when families are strapped for resources, try to find other solutions.
A group of university students created an online site, FarmLink, seeking to connect farmers with food banks. James Kanoff at Stanford and Aidan Reilly at Brown founded the group last month with donations from family and friends.
So far, he has hijacked 50,000 onions that were about to be destroyed on an Oregon farm and paid for their transportation to Los Angeles, where they have been distributed to food banks. Students also bought 10,000 eggs from a California farm, rented a truck, and drove them to a large food bank.
FarmLink, which now includes about 20 students from several colleges, has cold called hundreds of farms to find surpluses.
“Simply communicating with farmers is the hardest part because they are very busy,” said Jordan Hartzell, a student at Brown.
The needs of food banks are only increasing as the economic crisis deepens. There are still long queues in front of many food banks as charities struggle with an increase in need and a shortage of volunteers due to orders for stay at home.
While the details are being worked out, the New York grant could allow dairy companies like Chobani to drive trucks of their products to the neediest neighborhoods and distribute them in a public park.
In the small pantry she manages in Casper, Wyo., Mary Ann Budenske has experienced shortages of staples like milk and eggs. A cargo of approximately 200 gallons of milk arrived at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday was half gone. She sent more than 20 emails to farmers and professional associations, offering to drive her 1998 Ford pickup truck to collect leftover food herself.
“I pretty much get the bureaucracy” We are looking into this – we will get back to you “,” said Ms. Budenske. “The whole thing makes me sick. “