Millions of Pounds of Milk & Vegetables Are Being Wasted during the Coronavirus Outbreak—Here's Why

As supply chains shift, food is being thrown out and dumped before it even gets to a store. Here's what farmers and organizations are trying to do about it.

Restaurants, schools, hotels, universities and more have been forced to close their doors because of COVID-19. That's millions of meals no longer being served from restaurants and food service, which have different supply channels than our grocery stores. Many farmers were left without buyers for their produce and milk, and that led to food being wasted—and a lot of it. Here's a closer look at what's going on and how government agencies and nonprofit organizations like the USDA and Feeding America are working to help save food and the farmers who grow and harvest it.

Why Is There More Waste?

In our food system, the food at the grocery store is only a small piece of the pie (and only typically accounts for 10% of the nation's food waste). There is a whole sector of farms that produce bulk quantities of foods like milk, eggs and vegetables to be used in large food service settings—think school cafeterias, casino buffets and your local restaurants. Because most of these businesses have been forced to shut their doors, the demand for these goods has drastically declined.

For many farms it is not as simple as repurposing their products into a single-size, consumer-friendly package. Bottling milk or packaging cheese into smaller sizes would cost lots of money and require infrastructure that these farms don't have access to.

Many farms are donating some food to food banks and programs, like Meals on Wheels, that are experiencing elevated need right now. But there is only so much fresh produce those organizations are able to accept and safely store. Plus, harvesting and distributing food to be donated comes with a financial cost that many farms are unable to take on.

Economic impacts aside, chickens lay eggs and cows need to be milked every day, regardless of whether those products have anywhere to go. The Dairy Farmers of America, the largest milk cooperative in the county, has estimated that U.S. dairy farmers may be dumping between 2.7 and 3.7 million gallons of milk a day. Schools are a huge buyer of their products, so the national closures have had a major impact. Sanderson Farms, the nation's third-largest poultry processor, with plants across the Southeast, reported tossing up to 750,000 eggs weekly. Cabbage and onion farmers are tilling perfectly good produce back into the soil, since they don't have buyers. All of this comes at a time when more people are experiencing financial hardship and hunger than at any time in recent history.

Photo of piles of squash on a farm
Joe Raedle / Staff

What the Future Looks Like

Hopefully, this food waste is temporary (and we've already started to see some solutions). However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking out for farmers, who are the foundation of our food system. For individuals who buy their food from grocery stores, there seems to be very little risk of a food shortage. People overbuying and adjusting their shopping habits may make it seem like there is a shortage (where's all the toilet paper?) but that part of the food supply chain has stayed relatively consistent, and experts say it is strong.

You may not be able to find every single thing you're looking for at the store. Many large meat processing plants have closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies like Tyson Foods and Cargill have closed beef and pork processing plants (in Pennsylvania and Iowa, respectively) due to outbreaks in their areas. Several CEOs of meat production companies warm of the impacts this will have on meat availability nationwide. "It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a recent statement.

How We Can Help

Food waste has always been a big, complicated problem, and it is in the spotlight now more than ever. Up to 40% of food in the U.S. is ultimately wasted, and Americans throw away twice as much food as people in any other developed nation. There are a few things being done to help lessen the burden on farms and also to help get nutritious, perfectly good food that would be wasted to those in need.

The largest effort, announced by the USDA last week, is a $16 billion grant for emergency relief to farms, and an additional $3 billion to buy fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat to be donated to food banks and charities.

Additionally, Feeding America and the American Farm Bureau are trying to partner to create a voucher program to help farm-fresh food get to food banks. They plan to use vouchers to connect farmers directly with food banks in their area instead of requiring them to go through a third party, which can cause delays. Coupled with the government agricultural aid program, this would help farmers make much-needed charitable donations without draining their savings. Dairy Farmers of America, on April 21, announced a program to help donate money and surplus milk to meet increased demand.

Many restaurants nationwide have also remained open for takeout and delivery, and some have created options to allow people to donate and feed health care workers who are on the front lines of the crisis.

Options like community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares and direct-from-farmer purchasing have spiked as a result of people wanting fewer individuals in contact with their products. CSAs, in particular, are a win-win, as the upfront payments help farmers acquire the resources they need and, in return, purchasers receive high-quality, local produce all summer long. Farms in several states, including Florida, have even been able to pivot to sell directly to individuals to help cut down on the produce they would be wasting. Additionally, many farmers' markets are open and have adapted to meet the social distancing recommendations. Contact your local market director to see if there are options to safely shop directly from farms in your community. Most importantly, do your part, stay home and listen to guidelines from your local public health department and the CDC. This is the most surefire way to facilitate schools, restaurants, hotels and other businesses opening back up as soon as it's safe.

Bottom Line

Food waste is one of the many issues that have been exacerbated from the widespread closures caused by COVID-19. However, the hope is that these changes are temporary and that, with help, farms and farmers can weather the storm until the demand for their products returns to more normal levels. In the meantime, agencies and organizations like the USDA, Feeding America and the American Farm Bureau are taking the necessary steps to help farmers through this difficult time. If you have the flexibility to shop directly from farmers or purchase a CSA for the upcoming season, individual contributions can be a huge help too. In times of uncertainty, hardship and difficulty, it is hard to adapt. But taking extra steps can be crucial to the longevity of our nation's farms and food system.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health departments as resources.

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