Americans, we live in a country where over ten percent of households aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from — that’s nearly 15 million homes. But thanks to COVID-19 closures, the reduced need for food from schools, restaurants, hotels, theme parks, concert and sporting venues has created a surplus of products that need to go somewhere. Unfortunately, that “somewhere” is the trash or manure pits. And it’s appalling.
According to Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of the No Kid Hungry campaign, 1 out of 7 kids live in a house that struggles to put food on the table. 22 million children depend on reduced cost or free lunches while at school. Since schools have closed, access to those meals — and, therefore, the required amount of food — has decreased.
Many school districts are offering curbside pickup for kids 18 and younger, but transportation issues and the ability of caregivers to pick up meals makes it hard for families to take advantage of free food. School closings are just one problematic issue with the food chain supply: without the demand for food and milk, farmers are left with perishable supplies that are not being used.
Millions of gallons of milk are being dumped and mixed with fertilizer to be used on crops, not only forcing farmers to lose millions of dollars, but also to scale back production, adding more financial strain to their farms. Farmers are scrambling to put milk to use for cheese and yogurt products, but dairy farmers can’t quickly turn their processing plants into new operations overnight. Yes, grocery stores still need milk, but for the plant set up to make the little cartons of milk for schools, their options are limited.
Some farmers are finding ways to donate the milk, but again that has limitations — because of the need for people to move the product and the need for space to store it. Many local food banks can’t hold large amounts of perishable goods, so products are going bad before they can be used.
When the owners of Whoa Nellie Dairy in Acme, Pennsylvania found out their usual buyer would not be picking up milk, the farm was able to expand their bottling system instead of dumping the milk. They are able to pasteurize and bottle 30 gallons at a time, working 24/7, and their community has stepped in to help. Every day the farm is open, the owners say they sell out of milk. The farm is also donating milk to people in need. But not all farms have the resources to do this.
Fruit and vegetable farmers have been hurt, too. If farmers know their crops won’t make a profit or won’t be used, it’s not uncommon for them to plow the fields instead of harvesting them. It’s a loss, but cheaper to do so than paying workers to harvest and package products that have nowhere to go.
I grew up around farms, and worked on a vegetable and berry farm when I was in high school. I went to Penn State and studied agriculture. My friends and classmates were kids of farming families and were essentially farmers already. Even so, I only know and understand a fraction of the industry — but I know the pride and hard work that goes into making a farm run and earn profits. I would spend 8-10 hours a day, three months out the year, harvesting and packing tomatoes, corn, and cucumbers. I went home each day exhausted, but honored. Even as a teenager, I appreciated the work and worry it took to supply people with food while making money doing so.
The food I washed and packed was not just a product; it was a meal, a full belly, and time with friends and family. Food has a life of its own, and the idea of watching it go from seed to food to trash is heartbreaking. Farming is business, but it’s also community.
The meatpacking industry is under duress as well. Trump recently used the Defense Production Act to keep meatpacking plants open during the pandemic despite several plants seeing outbreaks of COVID-19. Employees are at risk of getting sick while working in assembly line factories—58% of the workers at Iowa’s Tyson meat factory tested positive for COVID-19—and animals could be euthanized as the surplus grows.
The supply chain is broken, and help can’t come soon enough. Using a $19 billion relief program, the Department of Agriculture will start buying meat, milk, and vegetables from farmers. Federal grants are also meant to cover the costs of packaging and transporting goods to charitable groups. The plan is to distribute some of the surplus to food banks, but it’s a work in progress. States are relying on their own Departments of Agriculture and are working with organizations to supply their most vulnerable citizens with food they need. For example, The Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin have been working with Hunger Task Force to distribute food.
Organizations like MEANS are also working around the clock to move products to nonprofit organizations. MEANS has programs in 49 states and Washington D.C. and works with over 3,000 partners nationwide to get donated food to food banks, shelters, churches, and soup kitchens. College students James Kanoff at Stanford and Aidan Reilly at Brown funded the online site called FarmLink which is comprised of volunteer college students who are moving excess food from farms to food banks. From onions to eggs, the students are stopping the destruction of food and moving it to places where it will benefit some of the millions of people struggling to put food on their plates.
Giving away milk and food is honorable, but it’s not profitable. And the food that is being purchased from distributors is being done so at reduced cost, yet prices haven’t dropped at stores. Paul Sobocinski runs a farm with 300 pigs. He is an activist against the corporate system that benefits powerhouses like Smithfield Food, which takes in about 20,000 pigs a day, and Tyson Foods. Even more now than usual, Sobocinski sees the price farmers and laborers are paying and told PBS News Hour, “Meat prices went down substantially because of the coronavirus. Who’s grabbing all that money? Has food come down in the grocery store? No, it hasn’t.” Unlike the big meatpacking plants, which have been shut down to varying degrees because of coronavirus outbreaks, the small local processing plant he uses hasn’t had any cases. The waste of animals and money at the mega-factories will be ugly.
There is not an easy answer. Folks are struggling to pay for food, yet farmers are dumping food because they can’t find places to sell or give away their food surpluses. Some can’t fund employees to harvest the crops. This is infuriating, and a deep cut of economic hardship that will be felt for a long time.
It’s also an embarrassing problem to have. With so much technology at our fingertips, one would think we could solve a problem that involves our most basic and primitive needs. I know the logistics are complicated, and no one is at fault, but this is another crippling effect of the pandemic.
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