Food waste is increasing sharply during the pandemic while food banks run dangerously low. Find out why our inflexible global food system is to blame.
Like most people of their generation, my parents didn’t waste food. They both came from a long line of farmers, and they knew how much work it took to get our groceries to the kitchen table.
That meant we ate a lot of leftovers out of our Tupperware-cluttered fridge. On Fridays, I would come home from school for lunch with just my dad and me.
He would proudly serve a mulligan stew, i.e., a hodgepodge of whatever was threatening to go bad in the kitchen. Farmers are fond of saying, “love food, hate waste.”
Dumping Produce While Food Banks Cope with Empty Shelves
My parents would have been sickened to learn how much farm produce is becoming avoidable food waste with COVID-19. Growers are finding themselves with no choice but to dump their dairy and produce while food banks cope with empty shelves.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit food banks hard. In a survey by the hunger-relief charity Feeding America, 98% of the food banks in its network were facing increased demand for their services.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America. She described the issue this way, “Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbours during this terrible time.”
“Need All the Resources We Can Get to Help Our Neighbours”
Making matters worse, the survey showed that 59% of food banks were coping with declining amounts of food on their shelves. Buying more food to stock the shelves is a challenge because 95% were facing increased operating expenses while 37% were seeing a critical shortfall in donations.
In the City of Toronto, the Yonge Street Mission’s Davis Centre is a food bank in the low-income Regent Park neighbourhood. In regular times, they provide groceries to about 600 people a week.
Their chief executive Angie Peters told the Globe and Mail that they now face double their usual demand. That has left them facing a $400,000 deficit. Ironically, this is happening in the midst of an epidemic of food waste in Canada.
Meanwhile, Producers Can’t Find a Market for Surplus Food
In short, more people are going hungry, but food banks are running low, and they can’t afford to re-stock their shelves. Meanwhile, producers can’t find a market for their surplus food.
What’s going on? With some notable exceptions, farmers haven’t sold their produce directly to consumers for a very long time.
Instead, they deal with people they call “middle-men,” and they’re not very fond of them. Agronomists call them the global food system.
COVID-19 Has Thrown a Wrench Into the Works
The food in our cupboards comes from all over the world via a highly specialized and complex worldwide distribution network. Social distancing from COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the works of that corporate food distribution machine.
As Professor Dawn Thilmany, an agriculture economist at Colorado State University, told Popular Science, “The biggest shift that happened is when they shut down restaurants except for those with fast food and delivery options.”
About half of the food produced in the US goes to the wholesale food market. With the foodservice industry virtually shut down, three-quarters of that market has vanished.
Dairy Farmers Dumping Five to Ten Percent of US Milk
Andrew Novakovic, an agriculture economist at Cornell University, has observed that dairy farmers are now dumping between five and ten percent of US milk. Here in Canada, restaurant closures have jumbled the dairy industry’s supply chain management, throwing usually orderly markets into disarray.
And so, Canadian farmers are also dumping milk. Asked about the pandemic, David Wiens, the vice president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, told CBC that, “A few weeks ago, nobody would have predicted that it would have this impact on the marketplace.”
He went on to say that farmers have “a huge surplus of milk now, which had nowhere to go.” Of course, it does have somewhere to go—food banks.
Of Course, It Does Have Somewhere to Go—Food Banks
The trouble is that there are storage issues involved. Milk isn’t like grain, which can be stored during a surplus and sold later when there is a shortage.
It’s perishable, and it needs to be kept refrigerated and sold immediately. The food bank system isn’t equipped to take in a deluge of perishable milk that has to be refrigerated at every step in the process.
Even so, provincial dairy associations in Canada have a food rescue plan in the works. They intend to find ways to donate surplus milk going forward, according to the Canadian Press. Also, the supply management experts are trying to work out how long the foodservice industry will be out of business and how and when demand will shift from restaurants to grocery stores.
Farmers Who Grow Fruit and Vegetables Abandoning Crops
Here in Canada, we import all of the fresh produce we enjoy over the winter. The farmers who grow our fruit and vegetables in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California are also abandoning their crops.
Again, this is because of restaurant closures. Fresh fruit and vegetables are almost as perishable as milk, and the global food system isn’t agile enough to prevent food waste when demand shifts.
We’re about to see the same issues with livestock as quarantine measures continue. Today’s meat industry is highly centralized in a tiny handful of massive processing plants.
Meat Industry is Centralized in a Handful of massive Plants
A lot of plant workers are off sick with the pandemic. Social distancing requirements and health and safety issues also limit the size of the remaining workforce.
Professor Thilmany explained that if the restaurant closures continue, “We’re going to have a whole lot of animals that have nowhere to go. We can feed them a little longer. At some point in time, that’s going to be a whole other version of food waste.”
Bloomberg is now reporting that a mass culling of hogs is about to begin. Their sources indicate that 160,000 hogs per day now have to be euthanized nationwide in the United States.
Mass Culling of Hogs is About to Begin
They’ll be starting with 13,000 pigs per day at an abattoir in Minnesota. The carcasses will be dumped in landfills or sent to rendering plants.
The pandemic is exposing a lot of weaknesses in today’s society. In this case, what we’re seeing is our hidebound, unyielding, global food system.
Our convoluted, multinational approach to matching the supply and demand for food is unresponsive to sudden social shifts. Bureaucratic systems force people who are far removed from both producers and consumers to decide how to allocate resources.
People Starve While Edible Food Rots in the Field
The perishable nature of food means that they can’t do this optimally. As a result, people starve while edible food rots in the field, tens of thousands of animals are euthanized and perfectly good milk is treated as organic waste, ending up with the manure.
We need to cut out the distance between food producers and food consumers to avoid food losses and waste. Everyone needs to look for ways to buy their food from local producers.
Go to farmer’s markets and get to know the people behind the food you eat. Ask them discrete questions about how they treat their livestock and what kinds of chemicals end up in their soil and on their fields.
Get to Know the People Behind the Food You Eat
Like so many other cultural practices this pandemic is exposing, the global food system is unsustainable. We need to learn how to obtain our food more nimbly and locally.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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Feeding America Network Faces Soaring Demand, Plummeting Supply Due to COVID-19 Crisis
Canadian food banks struggle to stay open, just as demand for their services skyrockets
Why Canada’s dairy farmers are dumping milk despite food supply issues in COVID-19
America’s Mass Hog Cull Begins With Meat Set to Rot in Landfills
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Agricultural Biodiversity Under Threat Worldwide
Finding New Ways to Share the Land