Monday, May 13, 2024

Institutionalized Food Waste in the Midst of Covid-19 Food Insecurity


“I’ve never seen it so challenging before,” says James Caldwell, who has been the head of the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank for more than 25 years. “Our distribution is up 30-50% over last year during this time frame. Even if you can only donate $1, $5, or $10, it all counts. We can do a lot with a few dollars.”

How America's Food Systems Struggled to Meet the Diverse Challenges of Covid-19

       Novel Covid-19 presented an array of novel challenges that many systems within the U.S. struggled to meet. A significant system that is straining to meet these challenges include America’s national food system. It is widely acknowledged that America’s food system is structured to capture profit at every turn, but not necessarily structured to handle issues outside the profit motive such as reducing food insecurity. Unfortunately, public policy was not able to expend the necessary resources in time to distribute food to households whose income cause them to fall outside this profit structure. The policies that were enacted early on the Covid-19 pandemic were disjointed with the reality that the Covid-19 pandemic wrought.

       Feeding America, through the Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, projected that 17 million more people would be food insecure by the end of 2020 in comparison to 2018. They used very widely known and historically relevant variables that cause households within a specific geography to be vulnerable to food insecurity. The metrics that enabled Feeding America to formulate the projection that 54 million Americans would be food insecure by the end of 2020 included the poverty rate, median income, unemployment rate and percent of homeowners within a particular geography. When considering the effect of the Covid-19 on employment and incomes, these metrics provided a dire outlook for 2020 in terms of food insecurity. The ensuing unemployment rate from the lock-downs provided enough evidence alone that substantial policy solutions would be required to help the food system adjust to the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, by April 25, 2020 the first time filing for unemployment benefits in just six weeks was 30 million. In the month of April, the first time weekly filings for unemployment benefits were above 3 million per week which was actually an improvement from the 6.9 million filed in the last week of March. Income, another metric used by Feeding America, dropped by two percent according to the Commerce Department. Many individuals were simply without income such as Tammy Devitoe, a single mother who was living on the financial margins as a waitress in New York lamented in early April, “How are people supposed to live a whole month without income. I’ve had to resort to begging online to complete strangers just so I can have enough money to eat and pay my bills.” A wave of articles detailed that a wave of bankruptcies were to be expected in the oil and retail industries which would further contract the economy and cause another wave of lost income. The expectation was that this contraction would add on the previously made prediction that the economy had contracted 40 percent within the April-June quarter.

       To make matters worse, only a small subset of people who filed for unemployment were actually receiving unemployment benefits. Nick Bunker, director of economic research at Indeed Hiring Lab, explained in April “Many workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance or continue to have difficulty getting through state systems. These numbers are staggering, but the reality of joblessness is even more dire.” It was also acknowledged by officials that America was in a dire economic situation with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell commenting in early April “that the U.S. economy is in an emergency and is deteriorating ‘with alarming speed’”. However, the metric that caused the food system to respond was the pronouncement that consumer spending had fell and most importantly the numbers showed that spending on groceries would not fill in the gap for consumption in restaurants. The response showed no regard for the impending food insecurity crisis. So, while the stories floated from all directions that unemployment was skyrocketing, poverty was increasing, evictions were increasing and household income was cratering the message to the food system prioritized was that consumer spending was down and the best response to minimize profit loss was to destroy millions of pounds of food.

When the pandemic hit the supply chain, that spigot just shut off,” says Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. She added, “We don’t have enough food in the system to keep up with this demand. We just don’t.”

       The millions of pounds of food that were destroyed were the same millions of pounds of food that could have assisted with alleviating the expected food insecurity crisis. While food was being destroyed 30 million Americans filed for unemployment, and instead of a swift nationwide solution to address food insecurity there was a nationwide effort to destroy valuable food sources. In Wisconsin and Ohio, thousands of gallons of fresh milk were dumped. An Idaho farmer buried 1 million pounds of onions. When profit is the predominate concern, the insufficient or lack of buyers that could generate profit means no distribution even in the midst of a pandemic. The statistics were unbelievable, farmers were dumping about 3.7 million gallons of milk and smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs per week according to the Dairy Farmers of America. In Delaware and Maryland alone, 2 million chickens were depopulated according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. Although the Maryland Department of Agriculture was aware of the situation, nothing was done in terms of distribution, only to “continue to monitor for any developments.” All the metrics pointed to fact that more than monitoring the destruction of food sources was needed yet the profit motive prevailed. Eric Holt-Gimenez, former director of Food First and author of Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It, provides more insight, “The dairy industry has been in crisis for decades because of overproduction and consolidation. Low prices and thin margins have made farmers vulnerable to even small market disruptions. The Covid-19 is the straw that broke the camel’s back. One hopes this will lead to the reforms dairy badly needs – reforms that ensure a healthy, sustainable industry that can help rebuild a more decentralized, family farmer-friendly industry.” Although private industry was not structured to handle immediate changes, sadly no broad policy solutions were readily dispatched to assist food banks to possibility being able to store more perishable food or distribute more items to households who according to the metrics outlines by Feeding America, will be food insecure very soon. For example, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank alone has distributed 135 million pounds of food from March until November 2020. The need increased by a staggering 145 percent in compared to the need prior to the pandemic.

Lawrence DeHart, president of the Terrebonne Churches United Good Samaritan Food Bank in Houma, said the number of people his agency serves has doubled.“ The year before last, we did 10,500 people,” DeHart said. “In the last 12 months, we did 21,800.” Image of Edmonton Food Bank by Mack Male on Flickr.

       The food system was primarily concerned with recouping the cost for “harvesting, processing and transporting produced and milk” and there were no mechanisms set in place to accommodate pandemic conditions even though it was warned that a worldwide pandemic was due. The emotional toll was heavy on farmers, with Paul Allen, co-owner of R.C. Hatton who said, “It’s heartbreaking” after having to destroy millions of beans and cabbage at his farms in South Florida and Georgia. Amanda Stone, PhD. Stone, a dairy scientist at Mississippi State University and an extension specialist, commented, “The psychological…damage that this is doing to producers is unfathomable, really,” in response to the realization that instead of reaping profit from recovering milk prices, they would have to destroy the product instead. Food insecurity also had a tremendous impact on the mental health of individuals who have to suffer through it. The Agriculture Department Coordination Center needed to anticipate that these food sources would be better utilized if they were preserved to feed future food insecure populations and to take an aggressive stance against simply destroying food. This was also realized in a letter to Trump as producers requested resources to help them shift operations to supply retailers, “This kind of transition, even if temporary, takes time and investment as we adjust our warehousing, logistics and purchasing processes to meet a consumer-facing market.” Since, it appears that the private food industry resists moving beyond profit, federal, state and local policies would need help to fill in this gap. The $19 billion relief Coronavirus Food Assistance Program provided $16 billion payments to farmers and $3 billion to be distributed but these funds are too little, too late to deal with the surpluses in the food system and the rising food insecurity. More needed to be done to connect the surplus to communities deprived of food because the food system is not able to achieve these aims on their own, because as Mike Cockrell, the chief financial officer said in response to the notion that he should donate some of his chickens to food banks, “We’re set up to sell that chicken. That would be an expensive proposition.”


Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy: Food Insecurity during Covid-19, journal article published by Craig Gundersen, Monica Hake, Adam Dewey and Emily Engelhard, October 2, 2020.

CNBC: Wasted milk, euthanized livestock: Photos show how coronavirus has devastated US agriculture, article published May 2, 2020.

CNN: 30 million Americans have filed initial unemployment claims since mid-March, article published April 30, 2020.

CNN: 2 million chickens will be killed in Delaware and Maryland because of lack of employees at processing plants, article published April 26, 2020.

Common Dreams: As Food Banks Face Shortages and Fresh Produce Rots, Pandemic Spurs Calls for Sustainable Supply Chain, article published April 17, 2020.

Forbes: Farmers Face Their Worst-Case Scenario: ‘Depopulating’ Chickens, Euthanizing Pigs and Dumping Milk, article published April 28, 2020.

The Guardian: Farmers are destroying mountains of food. Here’s what to do about it, article published May 7, 2020.

News Center Maine: 30 million people have sought US jobless aid since virus hit, article published April 30, 2020.

The New York Times: Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, article published April 11, 2020.

Politico: Food goes to waste amid coronavirus crisis, article published April 5, 2020.

Southern California Public Radio: Food Banks Struggle to Meet Demand During Covid Thanksgiving, article published November 26, 2020.

U.S. News: Record 30 million Americans File for Unemployment in Six Weeks Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, article published April 30, 2020.

Washington Post: America is in a depression. The challenge now is to make it short-lived, article published April 9, 2020.

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