With food insecurity on the rise across the U.S. as the coronavirus pandemic continues to drive unprecedented job losses and economic disruption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is facing backlash from lawmakers, farmers, and advocacy groups for its failure to act with urgency as millions of pounds of produce rot in fields across the nation.
"While other federal agencies quickly adapted their programs to the coronavirus crisis, the Agriculture Department took more than a month to make its first significant move to buy up surplus fruits and vegetables—despite repeated entreaties," Politico reported Sunday, noting that the USDA's belated response came "as food banks across the country scramble to meet a massive surge in demand."
On April 17, as Common Dreams reported, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, a $19 billion plan purportedly aimed at providing relief to farmers and making "mass purchases of dairy, meat, and agricultural produce to get that food to the people in need."
But critics say the federal agency's plan doesn't come anywhere close to matching the scale of the crisis, which has fueled calls for a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. food system.
"This thing is a joke," Tony DiMare, owner of the Florida-based produce distribution company DiMare Fresh, told Politico of the USDA's plan, which includes $3 billion to purchase and distribute surplus produce.
"DiMare's company... has donated over a million pounds of tomatoes to food banks in his area," Politico reported, "but he still had to leave some 10 million pounds in the field."
Nikki Fried, Florida's commissioner of agriculture in Florida, told Politico that she asked Perdue a month ago to take action to prevent mass waste of produce but received no response. "Unfortunately, USDA didn't move until [last week]," Fried said.
As early as March 23, a coalition of produce industry groups wrote a letter (pdf) to Perdue warning that "there is at least $1 billion of perishable commodities without a dedicated destinationas a result of the unanticipated closure of foodservice establishments, including restaurants, hotels, schools, and universities."
"There is no reason these high-quality, nutritious, farmer-grown products should be left in facilities to rot when there are so many American families who are suddenly faced with food insecurity," the letter stated.
Another grotesque, deadly failure. https://t.co/SEoXdXjVFy
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) April 26, 2020
This is infuriating. https://t.co/hhwNTfdfOa
— Lulu Garcia-Navarro (@lourdesgnavarro) April 27, 2020
Politico reported that federal officials "predicted it would take the better part of a month" before surplus food is packed and shipped to food banks, which are facing shortages and going millions of dollars over budget as they attempt to meet skyrocketing demand.
By the time USDA's program is up and running, Politico noted, "it will be too late for many produce growers who saw a huge drop in demand right at the peak of their season."
As New York magazine's Matt Stieb wrote Sunday, "Two of the enduring images of COVID-19's economic impact contradict each other: As miles-long lines back up at food banks throughout the country... ripe fruits and vegetables are being buried in their fields, with farmers losing out on half of their usual markets with restaurants, schools, and hotels closed."
"Though the apparent simplicity of solving one crisis with the other—providing the food insecure with unsellable product, rather than dumping milk into manure pits—is frustrated by practical issues, the Department of Agriculture only emerged with a solution on April 17," Steib wrote.
Amid federal inaction, Ryan Cranney, a farmer in the small town of Oakley, Idaho, decided to give away millions of potatoes that he is currently unable to sell.
"We saw people [come] from as far away as Las Vegas, which is an eight-hour drive from here," Cranney said in a recent interview. "If we as a country have more understanding of our food chain and where our food comes from and really what that means to farmers and the distribution system, maybe we'll be able to change things where we’re not quite as vulnerable going forward."
Feeding America, the largest food bank operator in the U.S., warned in a report last week that the coronavirus crisis could lead to an all-time high in child hunger as millions of families struggle to cope with the devastating economic fallout.
The report found that "the number of food insecure children could escalate to 18 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest total ever reported by USDA in the 25 years that it has been measuring food insecurity was 17.2 million in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession."
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, said in a statement that the findings should "mobilize everyone from our elected officials to the public at large to provide all the resources families need to get through this crisis."
"This pandemic has brought the plight of so many millions of our neighbors to the forefront," said Babineaux-Fontenot. "Every car waiting in a distribution line is a family seeking food and encouragement. We will not stop being there for them and ask that if you can support us in our mission, please give what you can."