US faces food shortage despite steady production as coronavirus disrupts distribution system

Many farmers are being forced to dump their produce even as store shelves go dry in parts of the country


                            US faces food shortage despite steady production as coronavirus disrupts distribution system
(Getty Images)

With the US witnessing a major shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, concerns are high over the availability of food items.

Top government officials have assured people in recent times that there will not be a lack of food. Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus task force, on Wednesday, April 1, announced that the country’s food supply is strong while touring a Walmart distribution center.

Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food, the Food and Drug Administration, and also a former Walmart executive, told the media over a video talk that there is no nationwide shortfall of food despite reports of local shortages. He ruled out the necessity to hoard food items.

However, according to one report in the National Public Radio (NPR), the problem lies somewhere else. There is a mismatch between the people and the distribution of food. While there is a rise in the number of people who cannot afford groceries, food is available more than required at some places.

It said dairy farmers in states like Wisconsin, Georgia and Minnesota were dumping gallons of milk because it will not be bought. In Florida, vegetable farmers were abandoning harvest-ready products like tomatoes and cucumbers because of lack of buyers.

Kim Jamerson, a vegetable grower near Fort Myers, said they could not pick the produce if it could not be sold.

“We'll have to tear ’em up,” Jamerson was quoted as saying by NPR. “Just tear up beautiful vegetables that really could go elsewhere, to food banks, and hospitals, and rest homes,” she regretted.

It is not that the food-distribution system in the US is faulty. It is known for efficiently delivering food to customers. But with restaurants and workplace kitchen and cafeterias shutting down, the predictability factor that keeps it functioning, has gone and the system has suffered as a result. 

Farm workers harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son's Farm on April 01, 2020 in Florida City, Florida. Sergio Martinez, a harvest crew supervisor, said that the coronavirus pandemic has caused them "to have to throw crops away due to less demand for produce in stores and restaurants. The farm workers who are essential to providing food for homebound families are worried that if the restaurants stay closed and peoples changed grocery store habits continue they would be out of work with no work for the near future." (Getty Images)

Those who coordinate the match between the demand and supply, are struggling because of the big fall in the demand. Jay Johnson of JGL Produce, a vegetable broker in Florida, said: “You're getting phone calls, text messages, emails, all day and all night. ‘What's your price on this? What grade? Can you do a better deal?’ You're doing all these micronegotiations throughout the day.”

It has not been the same since the fourth week of March. “Everything got quiet. Wednesday, the 25th, superquiet. Thursday, now we're getting nervous,” he said.

In the milk industry, too, same thing has happened. The sales have gone up in supermarkets but they are not enough to make up for the fall in the demand caused by the shutting down of schools and cheese-buying manufacturers. The factories have stopped buying milk and the farmers are being told to waste the liquid. 

While food is being wasted, there is also shortage of eatables

The other side of the spectrum sees food banks having trouble to provide enough supply to the needy, including millions of children and those who have lost their jobs. Feeding America is a network of food banks and charitable programs and it receives large donations of unsold food from the retail stores and because of the disruption in food supply, that donation has dried up considerably, said the network’s CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot.

While the food banks are trying to claim more of the food that is left stranded in the food service supply chain, may be through donations or purchase, Jamerson said it is a shame that there is adequate food but yet the people are not having enough on their plates.

A problem lies with hiring labor to move the product from one place to another for not many can afford to pay the workers to pick the agricultural produce to donate. They want the government to take up the responsibility to ensure that the gap between the demand and supply is bridged.

Some brokers still feel optimistic over the fact that the food banks in states like Florida have started buying some of their vegetables and finding innovative ways to distribute them, the NPR report added.

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