The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted supply chains and wasted billions of dollars of food.
Farmers from California to Florida have a surplus of highly perishable food that would normally go to restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships — but those have been closed or restricted by social distancing guidelines, reported The Guardian.
“What’s really weird right now in the supply chain is the grocery stores seem to be pretty heavy on product, farmers are throwing away stuff, and food banks are full,” said Brent Erenwert, CEO of the Houston-based Brothers Produce. “We don’t know where the demand lies.”
Farmers could lose up to $1.32 billion from March to May, according to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
“Retail cannot absorb it,” said Florida farmer Paul Allen. “Whatever else you’ve got just goes unharvested and you’ve got to mulch it back into the ground.”
That surplus is going wasted as food banks are facing record demand and grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked, but the outbreak has scrambled supply chains and forced farmers to find new ways to get their goods to market.
Preparing and packaging food for retail is much different than wholesale, and packaging and shipping food on trucks is a costly new problem for farmers.
“This is really having a disproportionate effect on warm weather states and smaller farms,” said Kara Heckert, a regional director for the American Farmland Trust. “It was kind of an overnight shift to at least a significant portion of the food system.”
Farmers who ship food directly to consumers have seen their business thrive, and some farm delivery programs have waiting lists hundreds of names long.
“Some consumers don’t feel safe going to the grocery store, unfortunately, because of too many people being there,” said Erenwert, whose company started shipping food directly to customers after the pandemic hit. “I know how to get that product safely to a consumer’s hand. The biggest thing was to keep my employees’ jobs and keep the supply chain moving – because if people see the supply chain stop, they go into even more of a panic.”
Farmers would like to get their surplus produce to food banks and charities, but they aren’t set up to warehouse large amounts of perishable food.
“We’re working with the state to try to get it to charities,” Allen said, ‘but quite frankly, a lot of those avenues are full. They can’t absorb it all, no way.”