Why destroy food when so many are hungry?

Courtesy of Second Harvest Produce

It’s more about logistics than scarcity

Many people struggling through the coronavirus finding it difficult to put food on the table have been outraged by news reports describing farmers destroying crops and even livestock. One group, Second Harvest is working to try to prevent that surplus from going to waste.

 Even in the best of circumstances, the richest country in the world has struggled to feed all of its hungry mouths. According to The Economic Research Service from the Department of Agriculture, 37.2 million people were food insecure in 2018. The pandemic crisis has only exacerbated that need.

Why then do we see headlines like “Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables” from the NY Times for stories about farmers purposely destroying food? And why is Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issuing executive orders to make it easier for livestock farmers to “depopulate and compost” their livestock?

Culling the herd isn’t new to America. In Burton W. Folsom’s book “New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America,” the retired professor of history at Hillsdale College brings to light some of the darker aspects of the New Deal.

During the Great Depression, the cost of livestock and crops were so low that Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a part of his New Deal, introduced the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). This legislation paid farmers to kill millions of hogs and cows and plow under over 10 million acres of cotton to artificially inflate prices. Unfortunately, this occurred as millions of Americans were going hungry.

This tactic was widely scrutinized and criticized. It was difficult for farmers to reconcile, having worked hard to raise animals and cultivate crops to feed their communities and the rest of the country. In the end, Americans had to pay a higher price for goods and the U.S. ended up importing tens of millions of pounds of crops that they were paying farmers not to produce.

Eventually the AAA was amended to start the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC). The FSRC distributed agricultural products to organizations to feed hungry Americans. Much like modern food banks today, these organizations packaged and distributed dry and canned goods across the country. Much of the AAA subsidies that farmers got out of the Great Depression are still around today due to farmers effectively lobbying to keep them.

So, is the government now conspiring with farmers to create scarcity? According to Bob Branham, Second Harvest Heartland’s director of produce strategy, this may not be the case. On Branham’s LinkedIn page he wrote, “There is enough food to feed every man, woman, and child in America. Hunger in America is not about supply, it is about redirecting the excess food that is lost each year to those that need it.”

Branham retired from General Mills after almost 30 years to found The Branham Group, whose goal is to eliminate hunger by reducing waste. Branham explained that the problem was not that there is not enough food, or that the government wants to keep food from those who need it in a scheme to raise prices. Instead, the biggest issues were those of education and supply chain.

First, surplus crops need to be identified. This takes outreach and coordination. While many farms have been absorbed and consolidated in recent history, Minnesota is still one of the most robust agricultural states, with nearly 69,000 farms of varying sizes. Logistics experts like Cargill and General Mills work with organizations like Second Harvest to connect Minnesota’s many farms with food banks and help store, repackage and redistribute the surplus.

 Branham said that storage has been a big obstacle when it comes to getting fresh produce into the hands of those who need it most. “Getting hundreds of refrigeration units to partners” he considered a major triumph.

Courtesy of Second Harvest ShivelFarm produce

Second Harvest has also recently opened a new facility to repackage bulk items into more easily consumable portions. And when the pandemic hit, Second Harvest started making emergency food boxes that contain tips on how to feed a family with the boxes’ contents.

But even when food transportation and storage aren’t a problem, sometimes the product isn’t moved. Branham used an example of a farmer with an undesirable crop. “A farmer may want to donate a crop of turnips, but we can’t use them.”

Undesirable food is a major source of waste in the U.S. According to a report in 2017 by the Guardian newspaper, Americans throw away 50% of their produce. The bulk of what is wasted is left in the field or in warehouses, and much is thrown out by consumers.

Unfortunately, livestock has been destroyed and used for composting as a result of the pandemic lock-downs that have closed or limited restaurant access to customers. The closures have slowed the processing, preparation and distribution of livestock products. The U.S. simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle proper distribution in the best of times, and the pandemic has shed a bright light on this weakness.

Second Harvest Heartland is one of the United States’ largest food banks. It provides tens of thousands of boxes of prepackaged food that it ships to food-shelf partners. The organization has stepped up its efforts during the COVID-19 crisis, committing to 165,000 boxes and components over several months. They are now providing prepackaged produce in addition to the distribution of regular foods. 

The food bank works with Minnesota Central Kitchen to help provide prepared meals as well. According to its website, it has “joined forces with local caterers and restaurateurs to distribute thousands of meals per day in partnership with Loaves & Fishes—a free public dining program with 30+ locations.”

Second Harvest also depends on lots of volunteers who pack boxes and fulfill other needs to get the work done. They are always looking for volunteers and information on how to do so is on their website.