By now, we have all seen the photos showing how food banks across the U.S. are overwhelmed as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Meanwhile, countless businesses have shut down and could disappear for good, except for groceries and pharmacies, many of which are preoccupied with their own struggles. As more citizens lose their jobs and families are threatened by food insecurity, the problem isn’t a lack of food: vegetables keep growing and cows still need to be milked. But the U.S. food supply is in disarray and families are going hungry because farmers and food distribution companies can’t change course fast enough – and the amount of capital required to launch such a shift imposes its own threat of financial run.
“The widespread destruction of fresh food — at a time when many Americans are hurting financially and millions are suddenly out of work — is an especially dystopian turn of events, even by the standards of a global pandemic,” wrote David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery earlier this month for the New York Times. “It reflects the profound economic uncertainty wrought by the virus and how difficult it has been for huge sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to adjust to such a sudden change in how they must operate.”
One would assume volunteers could band together, mobilize and gather that food and then distribute it to families in need. But it’s not that simple: About half of the produce U.S. farmers grow is for restaurants, which are either closed or only doing a sliver of business with takeout or delivery orders. As one spouse of a Fresno County farmworker told the Sacramento-based news site Cal Matters, “but who is going to pick it?” For most farmers and dairies, the alternative is to dump excess milk or plow those unwanted vegetables back into the soil. The economic collapse due to the massive disruption throughout the U.S. food supply is a painful gut punch: losses for farmers could approach close to $700 million between March and May of this year.
The more grisly stories come from the meat and egg industries, where producers have smashed eggs so they won’t become chickens or euthanize pigs as some of the largest meatpacking producers in the U.S. close down due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Granted, heroic efforts are accelerating nationwide as nonprofits, food banks and volunteers work with farmers to do their best so they can help food banks keep up with demand, action we can see from Houston to Wyoming to upstate New York. Meanwhile, more small farmers are pivoting to stay afloat, whether they launch community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes on the fly or they transform former roadside produce stands into drive-thru businesses. One egg ranch outside of the Central California town of Clovis saw the number of customers surge from 80 to 500 a day.
Photo: A volunteer sorts vegetables at a Feeding America-affiliated food bank in Hawaii (Feeding America/Facebook)
To their credit, players in the sports and entertainment industry, one sector that has screeched to a halt during this crisis, has seen plenty of leaders step up. The efforts range from football’s Pittsburgh Steelers football franchise supporting local efforts to distribute boxes of food to families in need, to the NBA San Antonio Spurs’ CEO offering his assistance to a massive local food bank operation. The entertainment community is chipping in as well. On the business side, companies as starkly different as Beyond Meat and Hormel are donating what they can as well.
But no matter how noble, sincere and tireless these individual efforts are, the reality is that each of these maneuvers are akin to wielding small butter knives trying to fight back against what is in comparison is an AK-47 assault on the U.S. food supply.
To that end, many farmers and some members of Congress want the federal government to step in and buy agricultural products that would otherwise go to waste – an effort these advocates say would help keep these vital cogs in the U.S. food supply chain solvent while allowing this food to go to where it’s needed most. Such a move makes sense: after all, the federal government has a presence everywhere, including rural areas, and could theoretically even deploy the military to manage the logistics of such an operation. Based on the federal government’s constant dithering in the midst of this crisis, however, such a 180-degree turn is unlikely.
One company showing how to gather food industry stakeholders in order to get things done is the grocery chain Publix. The Florida-based retailer announced last week an initiative that would buy dairy products and fresh produce from farmers, and then turn around and donate them to Feeding America member food banks across the southeastern U.S. The company can certainly point to its legacy as it puts its credibility behind this plan – since 2009, Publix said it has donated $2 billion in food to citizens and need and plans to double that amount over the upcoming decade. This is a program other retailers may want to emulate – and it sends a signal to the feds that it’s time to get their act together.
Image credit: Pixabay
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.