Reinventing on the fly to solve the pandemic food waste problem
by Adele Peters / 04-16-20

“As long lines of newly unemployed people wait at food banks—on a recent day at a distribution point in San Antonio, 10,000 cars waited in line—many farmers are simultaneously throwing out food that they can no longer sell to restaurants, hotels, and schools. Dairy farmers are throwing out an estimated 3.7 million gallons of milk each day; others are burying onions, plowing cabbages back into fields, and smashing eggs. The supply chains are complicated. But is it possible to rescue more of this food at a time when it’s most needed?

For farmers who usually sell food in bulk, it’s not necessarily simple to suddenly switch to something that can be sold in a grocery store now that many restaurants and other customers have closed or drastically scaled back purchases. “You can’t just take a 20-gallon bag of milk that typically goes in a milk dispenser and all of a sudden make it available to consumers to buy at the store—you need the right equipment in that facility to package it and get it into a form that you can actually sell it at retail,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit focused on food waste.

The right logistics may also not be in place to get the food where it needs to go. Farmers may not have the right relationships to sell the food. In some cases, food grown for restaurants may not be what consumers want to buy when they’re shopping for themselves. “People don’t buy, let’s say, broccolini at the grocery store the way they might in a restaurant,” she says. The same is true of high-end steak and seafood, which are more commonly eaten in restaurants than at home. While food banks need food, they don’t have enough refrigerators to store the volume of food that’s suddenly available. And while many farmers may prefer to donate food than let it go to waste, they often can’t afford the expense of harvesting and delivering it if they aren’t selling any produce during the shutdown. Instead, it’s just left to rot in the field.

This is all happening without any concerted national government effort to fix the problem, but some efforts are helping avoid food waste on farms during the pandemic. The California Association of Food Banks, which has a program that connects growers with food banks, says that it has been able to quickly ramp up donations from farms; last week, on a single day, the program connected four million pounds of food from farms with food banks. In some cases, the program pays farmers a small amount to help cover the cost of harvesting and packaging. “We make it really easy,” says Lauren Lathan Reid, the communications director for the organization. “We send a truck, we handle all of the logistics of getting it to the food bank.” Last week, after the California Department of Agriculture hosted a webinar to help farmers learn about the program, 200 new farmers called to make donations. Driscolls, a large berry producer, says that it and others in the industry are pushing for the USDA to begin buying excess produce so that it can be given to food banks nationally.

Some companies that ship produce to consumers have also been able to rescue more food. “We are absolutely buying more product from the current grower base that we’ve put in place over the last three or four years,” says Edward O’Malley, vice president of supply for Imperfect Foods, a company that already rescues food from farms, selling slightly blemished fruit and vegetables that supermarkets typically reject. “As they began having problems selling through both retail and food service, and their food service business dropped off, they began offering us more product.” Like other food delivery companies, Imperfect Foods is seeing massive demand from consumers, and so it has been able to buy that food, and begin working with new farmers. (It also has rescued food from other parts of the supply chain, including popcorn that had been destined for now-closed movie theaters, and cheese and nuts that were originally meant for snack trays in airplanes.)

Good Eggs, an online grocery in the Bay Area, says that it has also started buying more from suppliers who saw other contracts fall through. “Our customers have always looked to us as a source of local food from small producers, and we feel that responsibility now more than ever. Wherever possible, we’ve prioritized our small to midsize producer partners who relied heavily on farmers’ markets and restaurant sales,” says Benjamin Hartman, senior category manager of perishables at Good Eggs.

Some farmers have quickly started selling produce online, like Dirty Girl Produce, which started offering a veggie box and salad box to customers. It’s also one of the farmers to participate in a new curbside pickup program at a farmers market in San Francisco that lets customers place an order in advance online. “Many of our farms are hurting from the loss of sales to restaurants and tech companies, as well as decreased farmers market traffic,” says Brie Mazurek from the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the organization that set up the curbside pickup program. “But I also think small, local farms are in a position to quickly and nimbly adapt, and a number of them have pivoted to online sales and preorders.”

The challenge may increase as the growing season progresses, and more solutions are needed. “We are just at the beginning of produce season, and so we can expect that this problem is going to get worse before it gets better in terms of the volumes of produce that are coming online that will be coming online in the US,” says Gunders. “I can tell you at here at ReFed, we’re actively looking into this to try to unravel exactly what’s happening, what the challenges are, and see if there is some kind of marketplace to be set up or other solution, like additional processing, perhaps, to to get more volumes into frozen or canning to preserve it in some way. Ultimately, it’s just heartbreaking, the volumes of food that are not finding a home right now and right getting destroyed.”

Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic
by David Yaffe-BellanyMichael Corkery / April 11, 2020

“In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil. After weeks of concern about shortages in grocery stores and mad scrambles to find the last box of pasta or toilet paper roll, many of the nation’s largest farms are struggling with another ghastly effect of the pandemic. They are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.

The closing of restaurants, hotels and schools has left some farmers with no buyers for more than half their crops. And even as retailers see spikes in food sales to Americans who are now eating nearly every meal at home, the increases are not enough to absorb all of the perishable food that was planted weeks ago and intended for schools and businesses. The amount of waste is staggering. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.

Many farmers say they have donated part of the surplus to food banks and Meals on Wheels programs, which have been overwhelmed with demand. But there is only so much perishable food that charities with limited numbers of refrigerators and volunteers can absorb. And the costs of harvesting, processing and then transporting produce and milk to food banks or other areas of need would put further financial strain on farms that have seen half their paying customers disappear. Exporting much of the excess food is not feasible either, farmers say, because many international customers are also struggling through the pandemic and recent currency fluctuations make exports unprofitable. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Paul Allen, co-owner of R.C. Hatton, who has had to destroy millions of pounds of beans and cabbage at his farms in South Florida and Georgia.

The widespread destruction of fresh food — at a time when many Americans are hurting financially and millions are suddenly out of work — is an especially dystopian turn of events, even by the standards of a global pandemic. It reflects the profound economic uncertainty wrought by the virus and how difficult it has been for huge sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to adjust to such a sudden change in how they must operate. Even as Mr. Allen and other farmers have been plowing fresh vegetables into the soil, they have had to plant the same crop again, hoping the economy will have restarted by the time the next batch of vegetables is ready to harvest. But if the food service industry remains closed, then those crops, too, may have to be destroyed.

Farmers are also learning in real time about the nation’s consumption habits. The quarantines have shown just how many more vegetables Americans eat when meals are prepared for them in restaurants than when they have to cook for themselves. “People don’t make onion rings at home,” said Shay Myers, a third-generation onion farmer whose fields straddle the border of Oregon and Idaho. Mr. Myers said there were no good solutions to the fresh food glut. After his largest customer — the restaurant industry — shut down in California and New York, his farm started redistributing onions from 50-pound sacks into smaller bags that could be sold in grocery stores. He also started freezing some onions, but he has limited cold-storage capacity.

With few other options, Mr. Myers has begun burying tens of thousands of pounds of onions and leaving them to decompose in trenches. “There is no way to redistribute the quantities that we are talking about,” he said. Over the decades, the nation’s food banks have tried to shift from offering mostly processed meals to serving fresh produce, as well. But the pandemic has caused a shortage of volunteers, making it more difficult to serve fruits and vegetables, which are time-consuming and expensive to transport. “To purchase from a whole new set of farmers and suppliers — it takes time, it takes knowledge, you have to find the people, develop the contracts,” said Janet Poppendieck, an expert on poverty and food assistance.

The waste has become especially severe in the dairy industry, where cows need to be milked multiple times a day, regardless of whether there are buyers. Major consumers of dairy, like public schools and coffee shops, have all but vanished, leaving milk processing plants with fewer customers at a time of year when cows produce milk at their fastest rate. About 5 percent of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped and that amount is expected to double if the closings are extended over the next few months, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

Before the pandemic, the Dairymens processing plant in Cleveland would produce three loads of milk, or around 13,500 gallons, for Starbucks every day. Now the Starbucks order is down to one load every three days. For a while after the pandemic took hold, the plant collected twice as much milk from farmers as it could process, keeping the excess supply in refrigerated trailers, said Brian Funk, who works for Dairymens as a liaison to farmers. But eventually the plant ran out of storage. One night last week, Mr. Funk worked until 11 p.m., fighting back tears as he called farmers who supply the plant to explain the predicament. “We’re not going to pick your milk up tomorrow,” he told them. “We don’t have any place to put it.”

One of the farms that got the call was the Hartschuh Dairy Farm, which has nearly 200 cows on a plot of land in northern Ohio. A week ago, Rose Hartschuh, who runs the farm with her family, watched her father-in-law flush 31,000 pounds of milk into a lagoon. It took more than an hour for the milk to flow out of its refrigerated tank and down the drain pipe. For years, dairy farmers have struggled with low prices and bankruptcies. “This is one more blow below the belt,” Ms. Hartschuh said. To prevent further dumping, farming groups are trying everything to find places to send the excess milk — even lobbying pizza chains to increase the amount of cheese on every slice.At many dairy processors, for example, the machinery is designed to package shredded cheese in large bags for restaurants or place milk in small cartons for schools, rather than arrange the products in retail-friendly containers.

To repurpose those plants to put cheese in the 8 oz. bags that sell in grocery stores or bottle milk in gallon jugs would require millions of dollars in investment. For now, some processors have concluded that spending the money isn’t worth it. “It isn’t like restaurant demand has disappeared forever,” said Matt Gould, a dairy industry analyst. “Even if it were possible to re-format to make it an 8-ounce package rather than a 20-pound bag, the dollars and cents may not pan out.” Those same logistical challenges are bedeviling poultry plants that were set up to distribute chicken to restaurants rather than stores. Each week, the chicken processor Sanderson Farms destroys 750,000 unhatched eggs, or 5.5 percent of its total production, sending them to a rendering plant to be turned into pet food. Last week, the chief executive of Sanderson Farms, Joe Sanderson, told analysts that company officials had even considered euthanizing chickens to avoid selling them at unprofitable rates, though the company ultimately did not take that step.

In recent days, Sanderson Farms has donated some of its chicken to food banks and organizations that cook meals for emergency medical workers. But hatching hundreds of thousands of eggs for the purpose of charity is not a viable option, said Mike Cockrell, the company’s chief financial officer. “We’re set up to sell that chicken,” Mr. Cockrell said. “That would be an expensive proposition.”




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