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 		 [A variety of experts explain why getting food to those who need
it is a challenge and what is being done about it.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 COVID-19 HAS FORCED LARGE-SCALE FARMS THAT SUPPLY INSTITUTIONS TO
DUMP PRODUCE THEY CAN’T SELL. WHY CAN’T IT JUST FEED HUNGRY
PEOPLE? WE’VE GOT ANSWERS.  
[https://portside.org/2020-05-04/covid-19-has-forced-large-scale-farms-supply-institutions-dump-produce-they-cant-sell]


 

 Lela Nargi 
 April 27, 2020
The Counter
[https://thecounter.org/covid-19-produce-dumping-food-banks/?utm_source=The%20Counter%20Subscribers&utm_campaign=a4cca025e9-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_04_16_05_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_75a28a0eaf-a4cca025e9-511763337]


	*
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	*
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 _ A variety of experts explain why getting food to those who need it
is a challenge and what is being done about it. _ 

 A large reason for the food waste we’re seeing is the inability of
large-scale vegetable farms that service institutions to pivot to
service other markets., City Harvest/Ben Cohen 

 

In early March, as the first wave of Americans succumbed to Covid-19,
states and towns shuttered schools and sent college students packing,
closed bars and cafes, and forced restaurants to transition to
delivery or take-out-only operations. The effects on the agriculture
sector were immediate and severe. With no outlets for their perishable
products, farmers who normally supply such institutional kitchens
dumped milk, plowed under fields, and wondered if their operations
would last another season.

Meanwhile, parallel reports emerged about food banks, soup kitchens,
and senior meal programs hurting for donations. Seeing huge quantities
of food destroyed while people went hungry—echoing a _Grapes of
Wrath_ passage where malnourished children are forbidden from
collecting rotting oranges—prompted public outcry. Why couldn’t
this food be diverted to where it was needed?

There are multiple answers, including: Some of it is; it’s just
taking a while. To get a clearer understanding of where institutional
food comes from, why kinks at the center of the supply chain make
rerouting a challenge, and what’s being done to change that, I
talked to a variety of agriculture experts.

The Experts

Dan Barber, chef/co-owner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Tarrytown, New
York.

Ben Casella, field representative, New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Laura Edwards-Orr, director of institutional impact, Center for Good
Food Purchasing.

Dr. Gail Feenstra, deputy director, Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education Program, University of California Davis.

Hope Sippola, co-owner, Fiery Ginger one-acre produce farm, West
Sacramento, California.

Lacy Stephens, senior program manager, National Farm to School
Network.

Melissa Terry, food policy researcher, University of Arkansas,
Fayetteville.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

—

Institutional dining operations
[https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-94-007-0929-4_80]
include kitchens in schools, universities, prisons, nursing homes,
corporate and hospital cafeterias, restaurants and cafés, and buy
large quantities of food in bulk from national, regional, and
sometimes local distributors

 

Why is food being dumped?

Casella: The majority of producers in Florida and California grow a
large volume of fruit and vegetables for the food-service industry.
With those states’ peak harvests beginning as the pandemic started,
the food distribution system did not have time to absorb the excess
volume. 

Terry: Areas where you see eye-popping pictures of massive waste are
from operations that are bigger than they should be. Everything is
predicated on a supply chain with few fluctuations, but anybody who
grew up on a farm knows that agriculture doesn’t work that way. Even
in Fayetteville, though, we had local producers who were growing for
the school and the restaurant systems and  when the marketplace shut
down, there was a surge of produce and farmers were like, holy crap,
what to we do?

Areas where you see eye-popping pictures of massive waste are from
operations that are bigger than they should be.

Bolting, a.k.a. going to seed, happens when plants grow past their
prime before they can be harvested

Sippola: Sixty percent of our business is the 350 pounds a week of
lettuce mix and baby romaine we produce for four school districts.
They were our only wholesale customers and in the first weeks they
were shut down, we had 4,500 heads of romaine that bolted that we had
to mow down.

Barber: The food waste we’re seeing has everything to do with the
inability of large-scale vegetable farms that service institutions to
pivot to service other markets. It’s not just about hopping on a
different truck, it’s about how [that food] is packed and manicured.

Who’s responsible for that “packing and manicuring”?

A co-packer is a company that makes and/or packages a product on
behalf of a grower or food producer

Barber: Middlemen. I’ve talked about ignoring middlemen because they
tend to degrade food, whether it’s a mill taking whole wheat and
making it into white flour, or a processing center deadening
vegetables by co-packing, freezing, canning. But if we reimagine a
regional food economy where that middleman is key, if during a crisis
excess vegetables could go to a fermenter or pickler, that’s
resiliency.

Stephens: Emergency meals being prepared during this crisis focus on
prepared foods—they’re easier for families to take home. But if
you if had a local producer who could package snap peas into
individual grab-and-go containers, schools could purchase those high
quality food items, and also address distribution challenges for
farmers. Additionally, some milk goes to K-12 schools in bulk, but
grab-and-go meals require small cartons; the missing link is
flexibility in packaging.

The food waste we’re seeing has everything to do with the inability
of large-scale vegetable farms that service institutions to pivot to
service other markets.

An aggregator is often a cooperative of growers that pool their
resources to distribute and market their products

Terry: Our school district is doing five days’ worth of breakfasts
and lunches that families can pick up. This allows us to become an
aggregator, although first we had to push out what we had in stock
into the charitable food network; that prevents food waste, but it
won’t keep farmers or farm workers employed. Now districts are
partnering with farmers and using cafeteria staff to sub-divide bulk
deliveries into individual components.

Feenstra: Our food system generally is built for global distribution.
Now that’s suddenly cracked, people are going back to more local
food systems, where [important middle-tier components] like storage
facilities [for meat and grain] aren’t available.

Who is adjusting?

Feenstra: Small and mid-scale growers are more adept at changing their
business and distribution models to meet the needs of their
communities, and some farmers have found new outlets: selling partly
to school districts, doing CSAs or direct deliveries, and working with
food banks. On the flip side, one restaurateur in Sacramento is buying
from local farmers and putting his staff to work cooking good quality
food instead of just canned things for the emergency food system.

Stephens: For emergency meals, what’s working best is hand fruits
[like apples, pears, peaches], and cherry tomatoes that don’t take a
lot of preparation and, unlike leafy greens, can sit in a cooler. The
Austin school district has been able to make some beef purchases and
freeze the stock for summer feeding, which helps farmers. Food banks
have incredibly high demand for fresh food but the barrier is storage;
in some cases they’ve found a university nearby with storage space
they can borrow.

Small and mid-scale growers are more adept at changing their business
and distribution models to meet the needs of their communities.

Sippola: We started to do grab-and-go retail boxes through our online
store and they’ve been wildly successful; we’re selling 100 boxes
a week and we’ve sourced extra items from a farmer friend to fill
them. We put a large amount of lettuce in those but we can also sell
bagged lettuce to boutique groceries. What saved us is personal
relationships. We sell Natomas Unified school district lettuce in bulk
and they put it in cups for taco salads for their grab-and-go
[emergency] meals; it’s real food, with corn and black beans and
dressing and a protein, not just prepackaged granola bars. They know
it’s a big deal and want to help us.

Who else is helping make this new reality work for farmers and
feeders?

Stephens: Agencies like West Virginia’s education department have
been important connectors between producers and feeding programs, and
state agriculture departments play an important role in identifying
alternative markets for producers, as well as promoting them to the
public. Localized nonprofits like Common Market in New York City can
serve as regional distributors, connecting local farmers to feeding
programs and helping them package their products.

Edwards-Orr: Some colleges, like Smith, are using their [kitchens] and
pantry inventories to prepare meals for food banks or Meals on Wheels.
Hospitals continue to serve healthcare workers but have radically
reduced the number of meals served. University of Vermont Hospital,
for example, has turned its cafeteria into food retail for healthcare
workers who are unable to safely shop due to virus exposure.

Food banks have incredibly high demand for fresh food but the barrier
is storage.

Feenstra: In California, some new food hubs are starting up to make
the connection between small- and mid-scale famers with excess, and
consumers who use CalFresh/SNAP. There’s also work being done to
figure out how to change CSAs to direct delivery or drop-off. Who is
making these connections are co-op extension service agents, in every
county in the U.S. They can share resources and research, and have
access to grant monies. One agent told me she worked with county board
supervisors to keep farmers’ markets open, then with market managers
to reorganize to keep the markets safe.

How are farmers preparing for the months ahead?

Casella: New Jersey growers are forced to make decisions on what to
plant and how many acres to produce for harvest this summer. As the
season slowly starts with greens, progresses to asparagus and
strawberries, then into cucumbers and summer squash, farmers are
concerned if supply and demand will align. Some think we need to
expect a continuing loss of demand from the food-service industry
but it is hard to predict how it will affect the wholesale market.

This crisis has revealed the extreme silo-ing of our supply chains.

Sippola: We’re completely changing our crop plan. I think school
districts are going to order in the fall but it won’t be the same.
We only usually grow school crops nine months of the year; this year
that’s not possible. So we had to hurry up and order seeds for
summer crops that we don’t have a market for at the most competitive
time of year for farmers. We’re crossing fingers we’re going to
find markets, then hustle to find bigger groceries. We’re also
opening a whole other acre so we can accommodate more grab-and-go
retail boxes.

What flaws has this crisis revealed? What do you hope will change?

Edwards-Orr: This crisis has revealed the extreme silo-ing of our
supply chains. From a grower that grows lettuce to the specifications
of a chain restaurant, to a distributor who specializes in serving
them, it is very difficult to pivot the entire supply chain to a
grocery store. This is due to a combination of specialized hard
infrastructure [harvesting, packing, packaging] and customized soft
infrastructure [relationships, industry knowledge, customer service].
And for an industry that has trained customers to expect non-variable
access to food 12 months a year, it is doubly hard to innovate. 

Terry: Food wasted when there are high levels of food insecurity in
communities is an equity issue. SNAP participants cannot purchase food
online unless their state is part of a USDA pilot program
[https://thecounter.org/amazon-snap-payment-pilot-online-groceries/].
Two mega-vendors are leading the pilot but this leaves out farmers’
markets and CSAs and co-ops and small vendors and indie grocers and
individual food systems. But we already have a whole separate process
called Marketlink, which allows direct farm sales, and I’d like to
lay that process on top of online SNAP pilots to get an integrated
system.

Stephens: We know there will be shocks to the system from climate
change and future pandemics and we need to be ready to adapt. We hold
true to our core [philosophy] that focusing on localizing regional
food systems can create flexibility in these times. I hope
institutions will recognize that the need for producers to have
markets, and for people to have access to healthy food, is always
going to be there. How can we strengthen intersections in the middle
to ensure that can happen?

	*
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