Tens of millions of pounds of American-grown produce is rotting in fields as food banks across the country scramble to meet a massive surge in demand, a two-pronged disaster that has deprived farmers of billions of dollars in revenue while millions of newly jobless Americans struggle to feed their families.
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.
“It’s frustrating,” said Nikki Fried, commissioner of agriculture in Florida. Fried, who is a Democrat, and much of the Florida congressional delegation asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue nearly a month ago to use his broad authority and funding to get more Florida farmers plugged into federal food purchasing and distribution programs as the food service market collapsed. “Unfortunately, USDA didn’t move until [last week].”
Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, put it this way: “It’s not a lack of food, it’s that the food is in one place and the demand is somewhere else and they haven’t been able to connect the dots. You’ve got to galvanize people.”
It has been six weeks since President Donald Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first urged Americans to avoid restaurants as part of national social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of Covid-19 — a move that immediately severed demand for millions of pounds of food earmarked for professional kitchens across the country.
Just 50 miles from Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida growers, much of whose produce was destined for restaurant chains, faced an immediate crisis: Find customers for surplus crops or plow the fields under to avoid attracting pests.
Images of farmers destroying tomatoes, piling up squash, burying onions and dumping milk shocked many Americans who remain fearful of supply shortages. At the same time, people who recently lost their jobs lined up for miles outside some food banks, raising questions about why there has been no coordinated response at the federal level to get the surplus of perishable food to more people in need, even as commodity groups, state leaders and lawmakers repeatedly urged the Agriculture Department to step in.
Demand at food banks has increased an average of 70 percent, according to Feeding America, which represents about 200 major food banks across the country. The group estimates that 40 percent of those being served are new to the system.
In mid-April, USDA unveiled a long-awaited $19 billion aid program with $3 billion set aside to buy excess food, a pot of money that would cover a major ramp-up of fresh produce purchases, along with dairy and meats. But federal officials predicted it would take the better part of a month before that food is packed and shipped to food banks and other nonprofits in need. At that point, it will be too late for many produce growers who saw a huge drop in demand right at the peak of their season.
“By the time that comes through, it won’t help Florida,” said Brittany Lee, a blueberry farmer and executive director of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. Blueberry prices are about half of what they were this time last year, she said.
Sonny Perdue is the former governor of Georgia and cousin to current GOP Sen. David Purdue of Georgia. He was brought on to the Trump regime to do two things: act as the lightning rod for Trump's Chinese tariffs on farm products, and to get as many Americans off SNAP and other food benefit programs as possible.
He was never hired to handle a national food crisis, and make no mistake, we're deep into one. The USDA should have had a handle on this six weeks ago and it should have been a top priority.
But now, we've got tens of millions of people needing basic foodstuffs, and tens of millions of pounds of food going to waste. As poultry producer Tyson Foods warns, "The food supply chain is breaking."
The board chairman of Tyson Foods is warning that "millions of pounds of meat will disappear" from the national food supply chain as the coronavirus outbreak forces food processing plants to shutter.
"The food supply chain is breaking," John Tyson wrote in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed," he wrote in the advertisement, which was also published as a blog post on the company's website.
In recent weeks, the major poultry producer has temporarily suspended operations at plants across the country. The company halted operations Wednesday at an Iowa plant that is crucial to the nation's pork supply.
"In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation," John Tyson wrote.
"Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities," he added.
Four employees of Tyson's operations in rural southwest Georgia died earlier this month after becoming infected with the coronavirus, a company spokesman told The Associated Press.
Tyson has told NBC News that it is taking steps to protect its workers, including installing dividers between workers and relaxing its attendance policy to allow sick workers to stay home.
Great job, guys.