You’re standing in a long line waiting to be allowed into the grocery store. You breathe through the bandana covering your mouth and nose, trying to keep six feet between yourself and the people in front of and behind you. You hope that by the time you get to the front of the line they still have eggs and onions. While you wait, you check your phone… and see a news story highlighting huge numbers of fresh eggs being trashed, and another with a photo of thousands of perfectly good onions getting backfilled into a ditch.
How can this be?
How, at this time of uncertainty and crisis, can perfectly good food -- food that took time, money and energy to create -- be going to waste in such a dramatic way? And what does this absurdity say about the resilience and sustainability of our food system overall?
The problem is coming to a head now, in the fifth week that most of the nation has been shut down by the coronavirus (COVID-19). Supply chains that move food to restaurants and schools (where demand has cratered) can’t easily shift to supplying grocery stores (where demand is spiking). In order to make food accessible to people cooking at home, distributors that usually provide food for restaurants must build new retail channels and change their products. But the systems are not flexible enough to shift quickly, and as a result, food is stacking up in warehouses. Overcrowding in warehouses means distributors can’t buy more food from farmers, and that reverberates back to the farms, which can’t afford to harvest food without buyers -- so they are trashing it.
Even in the best of times, the food system in the United States has at least two big problems. First, it produces mountains of waste. Up to 40 percent of the food we produce never gets eaten, calling into question why we need to produce so much.
Second, the tools we use to achieve that overproduction have severe and long-lasting impacts on our environment and health. The reckless overuse of antibiotics to boost meat production creates “superbugs” and renders many precious drugs useless for protecting our health. Leaks from massive animal waste ponds and fertilizer runoff from farm fields pollute rivers, lakes and oceans, harming them as ecosystems and reducing our ability to rely on them for drinking water and recreation.
By exposing the fragility and rampant waste of America’s food system, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the dire need for more fundamental reform in the years to come. Right now, though, we need to take immediate steps to make sure that Americans have access to our nation’s amazing food abundance. Fortunately, there are solutions that business owners, cities, and states can all use to help better distribute the bounty of fresh food.
Cut the Red Tape: Local Solutions for Businesses and Municipalities
Restaurants are the usual destination for a large portion of America’s food supply. But most restaurants across the country are now closed to dine-in customers to protect public health, and many Americans are working from home. Today, restaurants that a month ago served lovely dinners or relied on big lunch crowds are sitting on more supplies than needed for their take-out orders.
Cities can help struggling restaurants, cut food waste and put food where it’s needed -- in our homes -- by allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce directly to consumers. Restaurants from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix are stepping up to provide groceries to customers, but they can face red tape from city government. Local restaurant regulators and public health authorities should slice through the bureaucratic tangle and allow for grocery sales by restaurants.
Repair the Supply Chain: State-level Solutions
Disasters often disrupt the routes by which edible food travels from field to table. State governments have agencies with the authority to respond to disasters by buying fresh produce and delivering it to the affected people. To mobilize that response, state governments can request permission from the Department of Agriculture to operate a “Disaster Household Distribution (DHD)” program. Already, states from Missouri to Pennsylvania to Louisiana have received approval to begin DHD programs.
States should also take advantage of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which provides funding to get unsold fresh food into food banks.
In addition to disaster efforts, states run food programs on an ongoing basis, administering programs such as the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). States can use such existing non-disaster programs to rescue food now by requesting greater flexibility from the USDA to buy fresh produce in bulk and otherwise adapt their existing food programs to respond to the crisis.
Many grocery stores and other food providers are seeing huge increases in demand, but they can’t keep up due to limitations on storage and staffing. Where stores cannot keep up with the surge in demand, states can mobilize their National Guard, as California has, to facilitate logistics and distribution.
Common sense, especially in a crisis
In normal times, our food system produces more than we can eat. So there’s no reason that a public health crisis should leave us wondering if we will be able to get the groceries we need to feed our families. Right now, we need to use every mechanism we can to assure food security for every one of us, by cutting through red tape and using the disaster relief measures that can help us rescue all those eggs and onions from the dump.
In the future, when we come out of our homes to gather again at work, outdoors and in restaurants let’s take the opportunity to rethink how we produce and distribute the abundance of America’s food supply. But for now, and while the COVID-19 crisis lasts, local, state, and federal governments should cut the red tape and adapt existing public programs to meet the challenge.