The Food Industry Begins to Struggle with the Effects of COVID-19

Burying onions in the field in Idaho.            Photo: Joseph Haeberle for The New York Times

By Zoey Shipley

Farmers are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food because of COVID-19’s impact on their usual markets, according to the New York Times. With major buyers of produce (like schools and restaurants) closed there is no choice for most farmers but to let the produce rot in their fields – for some it is more than half their crops. Grocery stores are struggling to keep shelves stocked with staples like bread and meat, meanwhile tons of fresh fruits and vegetables are just being thrown away. Producers are depending on $9.5 billion from the CARES Act stimulus package for their farms to survive this pandemic.

Why This Matters: As the unemployment rates sky-rocket due to national shutdowns, it’s hard to imagine food going to waste. Think of the energy, water, fertilizer and time it took to grow that food — all for naught.  Farms have donated to local food banks to help prevent food waste but there is a limit to how much perishable food those organizations can store. Plus, there is the risk for farmworkers of contracting COVID-19 while they often do not have masks and distancing practices to stop its spread. The country’s food system was clearly unprepared to handle a crisis like this.

Food Loss and the Stimulus

Unimaginable amounts of food have been lost so far. According to the Dairy Farmers of America, farmers could be dumping up to 3.7 million gallons of milk each day and just one producer is tossing out 750,000 eggs every week. Some farmers are forced to bury produce back into the ground for decomposing and replant on top of it, they try cold-storage practices, some are trying to sell directly to consumers, and most just hope for help from the stimulus packages.  Plus people eat differently at home — they cook far fewer vegetables when they prepare meals for themselves.  The Times put it this way: “[p]eople don’t make onion rings at home,” according to Shay Myers, a third-generation onion farmer.

“Clearly we’re in a time of crisis,” Gordon Speirs, owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion, Wis. told Politico. “We’ve lost 25 percent of our income just through the crashed market.”

With prices of produce plummeting to sometimes just $5 a box for fresh tomatoes and the dairy industry continuing to crumble from years of price drops, farmers worry that the stimulus package will not be enough. Advocacy groups are asking the Trump administration and Congress to focus more on producers in future stimulus acts. Groups are asking for things like tax exemptions or direct payments. More relief must be given to help local farming operations, but this should be a lesson. The stimulus should focus on local people, not giant agribusinesses like in the past.

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