U.S. grocery stores and food pantries alike can hardly keep their shelves stocked with food as COVID-19 continues to plague the country. Supply lines are bottlenecked for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with issues transporting the goods. Airlines have been grounded on a global scale, cargo ships struggle to find crews to man their vessels and trucking companies face a similar shortage of drivers.
Perhaps the most bewildering reason for this block in the supply line, however, is the decision on the part of farmers to let their excess food rot in their fields. Surplus milk is being poured on manure piles, unsellable crops are being plowed back into the ground and many ranchers are forced to consider euthanizing livestock they can not turn a profit off of. A solution must be found soon. Food waste is always abhorrent, but it is especially abhorrent during a time of crisis. If people are to receive the food they need, we need to not only develop a short-term system that ensures this excess produce reaches them; we must also discuss revisions to our current supply structure so that our lines can never again be so disturbed.
This bottleneck would not be possible if our supply chains were not so concentrated. Companies like Sysco and U.S. Foods are some of the only intermediaries between the farmers that grow the produce and the consumers that buy it, allowing them to control an estimated 75% of the U.S. food distribution market. With the pandemic in full force, that commercial side of the supply chain has no desire to buy in the same bulk they once did. Many of the institutions they would distribute the food to, like schools, sports stadiums and cruise ships, have closed down and no longer require the products farmers have to offer.
Of course, though these institutions have temporarily closed down, the people who would be attending these schools, sporting events and cruises still need the food we have lost. Many shoppers stockpiled food in the early days of the pandemic, leaving those who are unable to drop the necessary cash to buy in bulk few options when it comes to food. This bottleneck could not have come at a worse time.
From an outside perspective, it is easy to heap the blame on the farmers. After all, one can not help but wonder why they would not simply donate their surplus to food pantries and other charities that so desperately need it. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. As one might expect, the pandemic has made it difficult to find individuals willing to work the low-wage, high-skill jobs that farm work demands. Without the promise of willing customers once the harvest is finished, it is now far cheaper to destroy their goods than it is for them to make sure they are sent to the food insecure. By all accounts, farmers are severely discouraged from helping those in need because they have to focus on saving their own dying profession.
These issues are deeply rooted in our current system, and it will not be easy to address them, but that does not mean we should give up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already stated its intent to purchase up to $3 billion worth of produce and other goods from farmers for redistribution, hopefully providing a much needed financial buffer for farmers while ensuring the goods still reach those who are now stricken with food insecurity.
Concerned citizens have also organized hunger relief efforts on a grassroots level, with volunteer pickers showing up at farms and offering to pick produce free of charge so that it can be donated to local food banks. Of course, during this time, the government should also fund harvest efforts, perhaps through a bill similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, so that there is no longer a reason to let these goods go to waste.
Once these band-aid solutions have been applied, it will be time to address the system that allowed this to happen in the first place. For a long time we have assumed our supply chains were efficient, but concentrating them around a handful of commercial institutions instead of consumer groups like grocery stores and food pantries has now been proven ineffective in a crisis situation. Our current model works great for increasing profits, but money should not be the primary motivator — especially when people are starving.
Our system has failed us, and unless we reform it now it will fail us again. Today, we should focus on harvesting food for those who need it. Tomorrow, we must set our sights on uprooting our current system and changing it so that it focuses on people, not profit.