Marco Bello/Reuters/Business Insider
Farmers are destroying vast amounts of usable food and milk because the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible to sell.
Because many regular customers are closed, producers are left with no option but to crush fruit and vegetables back into the ground, and pour milk down the drain.
The USDA has a $3 billion program to buy up food and redistribute it to the needy — but industry leaders say they took so long to develop a response that it will now do little to help.
USDA told Politico it had moved quickly to support farmers. Business Insider has approached the department for comment.
Meanwhile the US could see unprecedented need as furloughed and laid-off workers struggle to feed their families.
Millions of pounds of food is being wasted on US farms after demand collapsed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple reports.
Farmers are pouring thousands of gallons of milk down the drain, and crushing ripe fruit and vegetables back into the soil with heavy machinery because they have no way to put it on the market for a profit.
The waste is due to a collapse in parts of the service industry forced to close because of the virus. It means buyers like restaurants, hotels, schools, and sports venues no longer need ingredients, which has in turn caused demand to plummet in some cases to half its regular levels, according to The Guardian.
The federal government launched a program to redistribute this food, setting aside $3 billion for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy it up and send it to struggling Americans.
However, industry leaders and lawmakers have complained that USDA failed to launch the program quick enough, leaving producers with no choice but to waste huge quantities of food, Politico reported.
Surplus fruit and vegetables have been plowed back into the ground in a process known as “re-mulching.” This prevents the crops rotting in the field and attracting pests.
Producers in some states have been asked by the cooperative Dairy Farmers of America to dump thousands of gallons of milk which is now un-sellable, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA Today via Reuters
One typical dairy in Wisconsin, the Golden E Dairy has been pouring up to 25,000 gallons of milk down the drain, reported the paper.
Although the co-op has paid for the wastage so far, it’s unclear how long this can continue.
At the same time, there is increased demand at food banks as newly furloughed or laid-off workers struggle to feed their families.
One of the country’s leading food bank networks, Feeding America, released a report on April 22 which said that the virus could cause a record number of children to go without proper food.
Tom Vilsack, the former secretary of agriculture under the Obama administration, told Politico: “It’s not a lack of food, it’s that the food is in one place and the demand is somewhere else and they haven’t been able to connect the dots.”
Back in March, industry leaders and lawmakers called on USDA to step in by buying up the surplus and redistributing it to food banks, according to Politico.
In Florida, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, a Democratic representative, led congressional calls to USDA to take action.
But it was not until around a month later, on April 17, that President Donald Trump directed USDA to launch its $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
The program is meant to provide direct support to farmers and devote $3 billion to buying up fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy products, at a rate of around $300 million a month.
This food will then be redistributed to food banks, faith organizations and other nonprofits.
However, it may have come too late. According to Politico, federal officials think the process of buying up and redistributing the food could take another month, by which time peak season will have passed.
Brittany Lee, a blueberry farmer and executive director of the Blueberry Growers Association, told Politico that the help would come too late for Florida farmers.
Commissioner Fried called the move “too little, too late” in a letter to USDA on April 22, which said that the USDA plan would cover little of Florida’s forecast $522 million agriculture losses.
“There are serious concerns over payment caps that cover just a small fraction of losses our producers have already experienced,” she said in a letter to USDA.
“For weeks, we have called for immediate federal purchases to help our fresh fruit and vegetable producers mitigate these losses, but the purchases coming now may be too late in the season for Florida farmers to benefit.”
Business Insider has approached the USDA for comment. The department told Politico in a statement that it had moved quickly to avert the situation.
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