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April 26, 2020; Politico and The Guardian

People in this country are hungry. Not just the usual regulars at food banks and soup kitchens, either; as unemployment numbers increase and families struggle to meet their basic needs, food insecurity becomes more and more common. Like these families, food banks across the country also struggle to meet this huge new demand. Ironically, much of the food that could be feeding these newly in-need populations is rotting in fields or being plowed under by farmers who cannot sell or transport their crops in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

What we have is a food crisis in two places. A crisis at the source—farmers and producers—and a crisis for the consumers, those who most need the food. The one with the most options for resolving this crisis—the federal government—seems to have taken a back seat for the most part.

Almost half of the food grown in the US, prior to this pandemic, went to restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks, and cruise ships. This leaves farmers in a precarious position. Growers in warm weather states like Florida and California have produced bumper crops of fresh produce with nowhere to sell it. Losses to farms in this spring crop alone will be in the billions, according to a National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition report.

Those farmers willing to donate produce have found themselves with the dilemma of food banks without the storage facilities and volunteers to manage donations of this quantity. Writing in March, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge noted the drop-off in on-site volunteers at food banks, on whom they depend for much of the packing and organizing for distribution of food, and how they have regrouped with new strategies for ways to get food to those in need. But even these new strategies cannot handle massive donations of fresh produce and dairy products without help from the federal government.

While growers in states like California work to protect their workers by observing distancing protocols, they find that this slows the work and leaves a huge amount of crop in the field to rot. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other states are dumping excess milk, flooding their fields with it or pouring it down drains in their production facilities. Because of how perishable this product is, this is a problem that, if they cannot get it to market, is not simple to resolve.

One non-governmental solution for some farmers is to team up and develop farm-to-consumer direct produce. Where it exists and the know-how is there, this is a way out for some.

“We’re using this as an opportunity to encourage collaboration and farmers working together to try to fill the gaps in this disruption,” said Evan Wiig, membership director at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which is working to pair farms that previously sold direct to schools and restaurants with established delivery logistics.

But is this enough? Where is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in this? It was not until mid-April that the USDA unveiled a $19 billion aid program with $3 billion for buying excess food, including fresh produce, dairy and meats. However, the Department indicated it would take at least a month before that food could be packed and shipped to food banks and nonprofits in need. That, according to growers, would be too late for their spring growing seasons and the crops they are now about to trash.

According to the USDA, they are moving expeditiously. “USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic,” Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement to Politico. “This is a challenging time for many Americans, but it is reassuring to see President Trump and our fellow Americans stepping up to the challenges facing us to make sure kids and those facing hunger are fed.”

Farmers are also furious with the USDA in the uniformity of aid payment limits to them. This aid, meant to help those affected by the coronavirus, does not take into account the differences in costs incurred to grow different crops. As one farmer says, “It typically costs less than $700 per acre to grow commodity soybeans. It costs more than $4,000 per acre to grow cabbage. What is fair is not always equal.”

Almost one-third of the House lawmakers have asked Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to do away with these uniform limits on payments to farmers, with no response.

But the USDA is not without other ideas. It says it will now, and for the next six months, spend $100 million per month for fresh produce and another $100 million per month for dairy and cooked meat products. These products will be sorted into boxes to go to low-income families. No one is sure just what will actually go into these boxes, but USDA officials say they are trying to get this done at “lightning speed.”

The process, however, is complicated, and there are many steps for a business (say, a farmer) to become a supplier. The USDA hopes to ship its first boxes by May 15th, but that will be two months since things fell apart in the food service supply chain. While it seems to be a step in the right direction, it may be too little, too late.

In the meantime, fresh food and dairy products continue to go to waste as people in this nation go hungry. Farmers are joining the lines of those who are in need, as they cannot pay their bills without sales of what they produce. A potato farmer in Idaho piled up the millions of potatoes he could not sell and invited the public to come and take what they needed. He was astounded when 60,000 people drove to his small town of 700 people for a free 10-pound bag of potatoes. That farmer, Ryan Cranny, said, “If we as a country have more understanding of our food chain and where our food comes from and really what that means to farmers and the distribution system, maybe we’ll be able to change things where we’re not quite as vulnerable going forward.”—Carole Levine