Business

Full fields, empty fridges

Farmers plow their unused produce back into the field. Food banks struggle to feed millions of new unemployed. A federal plan will play matchmaker.
(Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Farmers in the upper Midwest euthanize their baby pigs because the slaughterhouses are backing up or closing, while dairy owners in the region dump thousands of gallons of milk a day. In Salinas, Calif., rows of ripe iceberg, romaine and red-leaf lettuce shrivel in the spring sun, waiting to be plowed back into the earth.

Drone footage shows a 1.5-mile-long line of cars waiting their turn at a drive-through food bank in Miami. In Dallas, schools serve well north of 500,000 meals on each service day, cars rolling slowly past stations of ice chests and insulated bags as food service employees, volunteers and substitute teachers hand milk and meal packets through the windows.

Across the country, an unprecedented disconnect is emerging between where food is produced and the food banks and low-income neighborhoods that desperately need it. American farmers, ranchers, other food producers and poverty advocates have been asking the federal government to help overcome breakdowns in a food distribution system that have led to producers dumping food while Americans go hungry.

Late last week, the Trump administration stepped in, announcing a $19 billion program to help the struggling agriculture sector and distribute food to families in need. The aid package includes the government purchase of $3 billion in dairy, produce and meat products that will go to food banks and those in need. (About $16 billion is going to direct payments to farmers and ranchers.)

But the effort must overcome the challenges that led to the disconnect in the first place: Fresh produce and dairy must be transported from farms to food banks in refrigerated trucks. Refrigerator and freezer storage space must be available on the receiving end to accommodate a surge of frozen meat. Food that originally was slated for restaurant supply must be repackaged for home use. And all of this must occur while maintaining social distancing and without increasing the demand for labor because food banks, while running low on supplies, are running even lower on volunteers.

Unharvested lettuce wilts in the field this month in Central California's Salinas Valley during the coronavirus pandemic. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Food banks and other organizations focused on food insecurity struggle with transportation even under normal conditions, because it’s costly and because transportation and storage don’t lend themselves to donations, says Karen Smilowitz, an industrial engineering professor at Northwestern University. Transport and storage of food requires specialized equipment and must be regulated for safety. It’s costly, she says, plus the tax advantages aren’t as good for donated work.

“Now when you consider the additional safety concerns of covid-19 and reduction in volunteers because of the scale and scope of this crisis, the challenges are compounded,” Smilowitz said.

Over the past six weeks, the networks of food banks that collect surplus farm commodities and donated food from grocery stores and restaurants and distribute it to needy Americans have faced unprecedented demand because of record unemployment and a dramatic increase in households reporting food insecurity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent hunger report, published in September 2019, estimated that 37 million people were food-insecure in the United States. Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, predicts an additional 17.1 million Americans will have trouble feeding themselves and their families as a result of the pandemic.

In normal times, these big food banks distribute food to smaller community pantries and faith-based soup kitchens and shelters. Many of these have suspended operation because of a lack of volunteers and the challenges of maintaining safe social distancing.

That leaves the food banks as the primary distributors to those in need. In a Feeding America study last week, nearly all food banks reported an increase in demand for assistance compared with last year, with an average increase of 70 percent. An estimated 40 percent of the people served in recent weeks are new to food-bank support.

And the most dramatic increases aren’t in areas with the highest poverty, areas that already have strong infrastructure for feeding those in need. Nor are they necessarily in areas that qualify as covid-19 “hot spots” where hunger advocates might anticipate rising need.

Lisa Knutson collects eggs on her farm, Pasture Chick Ranch, in Hollister, Calif. The pandemic has closed most restaurants, which are one of Knutson's primary customers.
To try to offset the loss of her restaurant customers, Knutson has pivoted to community supported agriculture (CSA) sales and farmers markets.
Yiling Cui prepares tiny carrots for sale at her farm, Everlasting Garden, in Hollister, Calif. She has also turned to farmers markets, but that will cover only a small amount of her financial losses from the restaurant closures.
TOP: Lisa Knutson collects eggs on her farm, Pasture Chick Ranch, in Hollister, Calif. The pandemic has closed most restaurants, which are one of Knutson's primary customers. BOTTOM LEFT: To try to offset the loss of her restaurant customers, Knutson has pivoted to community supported agriculture (CSA) sales and farmers markets. BOTTOM RIGHT: Yiling Cui prepares tiny carrots for sale at her farm, Everlasting Garden, in Hollister, Calif. She has also turned to farmers markets, but that will cover only a small amount of her financial losses from the restaurant closures.

According to Feeding America, its partner food banks in Akron, El Paso, Miami, Florida’s Tampa Bay area and Salinas report the highest increases in demand, while those in Baltimore; South Bend, Ind.; Delmont, Pa.; Riverside, Calif.; and Elmsford, N.Y., report the highest rates of new people seeking assistance.

Still, in many cases those urban areas are better equipped to handle increased hunger than rural areas because of population density, infrastructure and the prevalence of emergency food sites, says Alison Meares Cohen, senior director of programs at WhyHunger, a hunger and poverty nonprofit organization. Native American communities, which have experienced steep infection rates, are also seeing increased need.

The difficulties of getting food to people who are food-insecure is a direct function of broader supply-chain problems, Cohen says.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years, the distance from field to plate has grown, putting extreme reliance on a national and global food-supply chain,” she said. “As these food-supply chains shut down or become stressed, the food prices will rise, leading to increased food-insecurity rates. There is going to continue to be an astronomical increase of those who need to access emergency food.”

The distribution breakdowns have affected most sectors of American agriculture: dairy, produce, beef and pork.

After an initial spike in demand in early March as retail shoppers panic-purchased milk at the grocery store, dairy farmers saw a precipitous drop in demand. With schools and restaurants closed, the dairy industry lost its major customers: Half of the nation’s cheese and 60 percent of butter goes to restaurants, and 7 percent of fluid milk is used in the school nutrition program.

Milk prices dropped 20 percent, to their lowest point in a dozen years.

“Imagine you are running a plant and that you were supplying milk for Starbucks or cheese for all the burger joints,” said Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president of policy strategy for the National Milk Producers Federation. “Imagine that was your job, the business you created. You’re sitting there and all of a sudden you hear that all your orders have been canceled.”

Many of the processing plants have closed. Others have asked farmers to reduce production by 20 percent or to dump it down the drain so milk prices don’t tank.

Dairyman Simon Vander Woude's farm cooperative in Merced County, Calif., provides milk products nationwide.
With schools and restaurants closed, the dairy industry lost its major customers.
Vander Woude takes a business call. His farm cooperative produces 40 percent of California's milk and operates processing plants throughout the Central Valley.
TOP: Dairyman Simon Vander Woude's farm cooperative in Merced County, Calif., provides milk products nationwide. BOTTOM LEFT: With schools and restaurants closed, the dairy industry lost its major customers. BOTTOM RIGHT: Vander Woude takes a business call. His farm cooperative produces 40 percent of California's milk and operates processing plants throughout the Central Valley.

The shutdown of restaurants also hurt American fruit and vegetable growers. Most years, Florida farmers who produce tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, blueberries and strawberries can count on selling their product to restaurants around the country.

Grocery stores typically turn to produce from Mexico because it is cheaper, leaving growers in Florida and California to focus on building relationships with restaurants.

But those restaurants are mostly closed now or struggling along at a fraction of their usual sales volume with takeout orders.

“Without those buyers, and with many farmers markets closed, there are no takers,” says Caleb Burgin, who owns Burgin Farms in Wauchula, Fla., a middleman seller for growers from Florida to Michigan. “Farmers are burning and disking millions of pounds of their ripe fruits and vegetables back into the soil.”

For beef and pork, the supply-chain bottlenecks occurred because of widely reported covid-19 outbreaks that have shut down many meat-processing plants.

And with their food-service customers shut down temporarily, pork producers have been unable to pivot easily to exports because U.S. ports have slowed or shut down, and shipping containers are marooned in China, which has endured its own pandemic shutdown, according to Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations for the National Pork Producers Council.

“There’s a real huge shortage of freezer space in the U.S.," Hockman said. “And we’re having a huge backup in getting access to containers because Americans aren’t buying anything here so containers aren’t going back and forth between here and China.”

Some agriculture sectors — think eggs — saw a temporary boost in prices as homebound consumers engaged in stress baking. But that demand has fallen away, according to Jesse Laflamme, chief executive of Pete and Gerry’s Organics in Monroe, N.H. “There is a lot of extra volume on the market right now, and increased retail demand won’t necessarily consume it all.”

Under the Trump administration plan announced last week, the federal government will purchase $300 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat. The USDA will pay distributors directly to pick up available food from farmers and ranchers and food that was slated for food service and truck it to food bank hubs.

“This program will not only provide immediate relief for our farmers and ranchers, but it will also allow for the purchase and distribution of our agricultural abundance to help our fellow Americans in need,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters in a call Friday night.

(The $19 billion program does not extend to egg farmers, nor does it benefit American fisheries and aquaculture businesses. The majority of seafood is sold in food service, so restaurant closures have meant sales revenue has evaporated.)

Vegetables, meat and dairy will be broken down into “household-size” quantities and repackaged in boxes that can be tucked into the trunks of cars for contactless delivery.

“The federal government has been able to do a lot of things that no one thought they could do unilaterally,” said Heidi Heitkamp, a former U.S. senator from North Dakota and member of the chamber’s Agriculture Committee. “Agriculture has always been pretty resilient, but if we don’t fix this supply-chain problem, we will have farmers going out of business.”

But there are hurdles and logjams yet to be tackled, and some food industry experts wonder whether the federal government is up to the challenge. It’s still unclear how food will be transported to where it is needed, and who will pay for the rented refrigerator and freezer trucks necessary to increase storage capacity on-site at food banks. Those details have yet to be worked out.

“Food service trucks distribute that cold product to the restaurants,” Castaneda of the National Milk Producers Federation explained. “Could we use those trucks to take it to the food banks and then have them stay there so food banks have extra on-site cold-storage facilities? Who is going to help pay for that? The federal government is going to have to do things it’s never done before.”

Under the Trump administration's plan, the federal government will purchase $300 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat. But the program does not extend to egg farmers or American fisheries and aquaculture businesses. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Photos by Melina Mara. Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg.

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