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As Food Banks Face Shortages and Fresh Produce Rots, Pandemic Spurs Calls for Sustainable Supply Chain

"To truly be resilient, our system must shift to one that relies on small and medium producers and independent, responsible operations."

A volunteer with Forgotten Harvest loads food into a vehicle at a mobile pantry April 14, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan.

A volunteer with Forgotten Harvest loads food into a vehicle at a mobile pantry April 14, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The organization distributes food throughout the metro area, which has seen an uptick in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

U.S. food pantries have faced unprecedented demand while billions of dollars in produce has gone to waste due to supply chain disruptions from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—conditions that are renewing calls for reforms to make the nation's food systems more localized, resilient, and sustainable.

Coronavirus-related lockdowns and business closures this year have led to "staggering" levels of job loss, with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting Thursday that roughly 22 million people have applied for unemployment insurance since mid-March.

Those job and income losses have driven up demand for assistance from U.S. food banks and soup kitchens. In recent days, social media networks have been flooded with footage of long lines of cars full of people seeking free or affordable options:

"This year, the COVID-19 crisis is driving more of our neighbors into food insecurity and putting a strain on food banks to provide more meals," Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot said in a statement last week. "Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbors during this terrible time."

Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the United States, has a national network of 200 food banks. A recent survey of those food banks found that through April 1, 98% saw an increase in demand, 59% had less inventory, 67% needed more volunteers, 95% had higher operational expenses, and 37% faced "an immediate critical funding shortfall."

The Guardian reported Friday on the conditions at over 20 food banks and pantries across 15 states, some of which have established drive-thru distribution centers to comply with social distancing guidelines:

Queues up to six miles long have become common at these pop-up collection points as farwide as San Antonio, Las Vegas, and Cleveland, where thousands of recently furloughed and unemployed people wait hours for grocery boxes."

As demand escalates, the price of non-perishable staples such as peanut butter, eggs, canned vegetables, beans, pasta, rice, and jam is soaring, while supplies are running low with four- to eight-week delays and bottlenecks reported across the supply chain.

Eric Cooper, president of a food bank in San Antonio, told the Guardian that 25 semi-trucks of food were handed out in a single day last week, when about 10,000 people showed up at a drive-thru distribution center.

"The only thing we can do is ration and give families less," Cooper said of the rising demand for food aid. "I would challenge our federal government to put systems in place that allow for wasted food to go to families we are feeding. It's unconscionable."

In addition to increasing unemployment, pandemic-related local and state shutdowns of schools and "nonessential" businesses—which often restrict restaurants to providing only takeout and delivery services—have also led to major food supply chain disruptions.

Civil Eats explained Wednesday that "farmers, without their usual foodservice markets, are being forced to dump milk, eggs, and produce—even while there is an urgent, unprecedented need at food banks. And while there are efforts underway to address the gap between production and distribution, in between are many questions about how our food supply and distribution systems are set up—or not—to respond to disruption."

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About $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables have already gone to waste, The Hill reported Friday, citing the industry trade group Produce Marketing Association. The group's CEO Cathy Burns said that "there's product literally wasting on the ground and then you have a whole population of people that are in dire need of nutritious foods."

"We have hundreds of thousands of farmers sitting on product," said Burns. "Because they don't have the financial means to ship and distribute it throughout the country, there is good, nutritious food going to waste while there are thousands of people going hungry."

"I think what it demonstrates is that the food supply chain that we have set up now, it's not set up to pivot ...quickly to address this kind of shock to the system," Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, told The Hill.

Feeding America and the industry trade group American Farm Bureau Federation last week urged (pdf) U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to establish "a voucher program that would deepen the relationships between farmers and food banks, allowing them to work directly with one another instead of relying upon third parties and what is sometimes a longer pathway to get food from farms to food bank shelves."

Burns told The Hill that "if we can get the funding to give farmers a fair price for their product, we can get it to food service distribution centers—they need the middle people in between—get it to their facilities, repack it in boxes, deliver it to a school or a food bank for distribution."

As Common Dreams reported Monday, both fresh produce and animal food products are being impacted by the pandemic. One of the country's largest pork processing facilities shut down after over 230 workers contracted COVID-19. Smithfield Foods president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan warned the closure of that facility and other U.S. protein plants will have "severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation's livestock farmers."

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staff attorney Valerie Baron—who focuses on environmental and health protections, climate-healthy eating, and the impacts of industrial animal agriculture—addressed how the pandemic is endangering slaugtherhouse workers and supply chains in a blog post Thursday:

The strains on our supply chain spotlighted by the current crisis underscore that we need a fundamental overhaul of our food system to protect people who work in it, safeguard people who live near production sites, ensure sufficient safeguards to protect food safety, and ensure that resources are managed so that they remain available for future generations. Industry has long touted the consolidation and integration that helped amass corporate power as "efficient." The current crisis, however, has made clear what many working in the food supply chain have long known: these same "efficient processes" have left our whole food system—from farm to fork—vulnerable when single linchpins (such as slaughterhouses) are impacted. As one expert put it, "to truly be resilient, our system must shift to one that relies on small and medium producers and independent, responsible operations."

Baron urged policymakers to require stronger workplace standards, ensure essential food system workers have access to emergency care, and "provide support for industrial meat producers who want to switch to more resilient and sustainable production methods."

Renewed calls for promoting more resilient and sustainable food practices—sparked by the pandemic—aren't contained to the United States. Friends of the Earth Europe, in a series of tweets Friday, highlighted food-related lessons from the coronavirus crisis and benefits of localized food production:

"With business-as-usual agriculture we will not withstand the #climatecrisis and #biodiversitycrisis," Friends of the Earth Europe added. "Urgent action needs to be taken to change the food system!"

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