Markets have shrivelled, storage is full, and redistribution networks are lacking, putting farmers in an awful predicament.
For many Americans, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on food security are immediately visible in grocery store aisles, where it's now impossible to find a bag of flour or a package of yeast, and there are limits on the number of canned tomatoes and boxes of pasta you can take home. But that is only the tip of the iceberg; a much bigger food crisis is brewing out of sight, beyond the supermarkets, in the fields and barns where farmers raise crops and animals that normally feed America.
In a heartbreaking turn of events, many farmers are having to destroy the crops they've worked hard to grow because wholesale markets have dried up completely. Countless schools, airlines, restaurants, and hotels are no longer operating, which means orders for fresh produce have been cancelled. Crops that have already been grown according to contracts are being plowed back into the ground to rot, while new ones are being planted simultaneously in hopes that the economy will have restarted by the time they're ready to harvest.An article in the New York Times describes millions of pounds of cabbage and green beans being destroyed in South Florida and Georgia, tens of thousands of pounds of onions getting buried in trenches in Idaho, and 5 percent of the country's milk supply being dumped daily – a number that could double if closures extend for another few months. Millions of unhatched chicken eggs are being smashed to avoid raising the animals for slaughter because the market is gone. (The eggs are sent to a rendering plant to be turned into pet food, so it's not a total waste.) The fishing industry is struggling, too, since two-thirds of the United States' seafood supply is normally consumed in hotels and restaurants.
What's the solution?
Farmers' and wholesalers' cold storage and freezers are filled to capacity, but even this is risky. The backlog of products is global, competition will be stiff from international suppliers, and many farmers fear that their usual wholesale outlets won't open up again once the crisis ends because many restaurants will have gone out of business.
These horrific reports of waste raise the obvious question of distribution. At a time when countless Americans face new food insecurity, surely this surplus food can be shared somehow? Unfortunately, within the current food system, that's easier said than done. Many food banks and soup kitchens have welcomed the influx of fresh produce, but are now inundated; they have limited capacity for storage and fewer volunteers to prepare and serve perishable ingredients.
Part of the problem is that many products are packaged for wholesale, in enormous quantities that are not easily usable by single-family households – think 50-pound bags of flour and 48-oz tubs of sour cream. Laura Reiley explains for the Washington Post that "a distribution system that was built to supply restaurants with bulk items is struggling to adapt to far smaller packaging for home use." Whereas half of U.S. food-related dollars were spent in restaurants prior to the pandemic, now almost all meals are being made at home, so it's no wonder we're facing shortages in the things we usually buy.
Help needs to come both from the top and the bottom. A governmental strategy to purchase these unsellable crops and redistribute to those in need, perhaps with the aid of the military, which is specialized in logistics, and in a format similar to a CSA box, would be a beneficial situation for everyone involved. Meanwhile, a grassroots, bottom-up response could go a long way, with community members asking themselves which foods are grown or raised locally, reaching out to those providers to buy ingredients, and spreading the word.
People should examine their own eating habits and strive to incorporate more fresh local produce into their diets. The waste has revealed fascinating information about Americans' eating habits. It's clear they do not eat nearly as many vegetables when cooking for themselves at home as they do when eating in restaurants. In the words of third-generation onion farmer Shay Myers, "People don't make onion rings at home," but I suggest that they could be making caramelized onions to top homemade pizza, pickled onions for tacos, French onion soup, and curries that rely on a rich onion base. It's not going to save the onion farmers, but a concerted effort from home cooks could at least help a little.
The wholesale fish industry is trying to get people cooking fish at home, in hopes of expanding that smaller market immediately. It is hoping Americans will try eating less familiar types of fish in order to support local fishermen, rather than cheaper imported products such as shrimp. Civil Eats reports:
"In Cape Cod, skate wings, monkfish and dogfish have become bread-and-butter species for fishermen as global warming and changing ocean conditions make cod and haddock harder to find... To eat more U.S. caught fish, domestic consumers would have to start to buying these lesser-known species — a shift that was already being promoted by chefs and fishermen on a small scale before the pandemic. But those campaigns have taken on a new urgency now."
The coronavirus has managed to highlight the inequalities that already existed in our food system, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She says its failings in a time of crisis were inevitable: "Witness hunger and food insecurity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, and gross inequalities among people involved in food production and consumption." Nestle hopes that, once the crisis is over, we'll have a new system that pays farmworkers, packinghouse workers, and restaurant staff more fairly. "There is already a lot of worker unrest as the burden of food system work has fallen on the people who are paid the least."
At no point in recent memory has it been so clear that the way we grow, distribute, and buy food needs to change. Smaller-scale production that can pivot more quickly to accommodate local needs and navigate global crises, that does not rely on vast mono-crops and convoluted shipping networks in order to distribute, is a far safer and more secure way to go. There's more than enough food to go around, but only if we learn how to distribute it properly.