USDA let millions of pounds of food rot while food-bank demand soared

State officials and growers say Trump’s Agriculture Department has been woefully slow to respond to farm crisis caused by coronavirus.

USDA let millions of pounds of food rot while food-bank demand soared

(POLITICO) 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.

The Agriculture Department said it has moved expeditiously to respond to the crisis.

“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic,” Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement to POLITICO. “This is a challenging time for many Americans, but it is reassuring to see President Trump and our fellow Americans stepping up to the challenges facing us to make sure kids and those facing hunger are fed.”

Department officials declined requests to discuss the government’s approach to capturing the perishable food glut. A spokesperson noted that the department distributes about $2 billion in agricultural products every year to schools, food banks, tribal organizations and others. That number doubled to $4 billion last year as USDA bought up more commodities to help compensate farmers harmed by the trade war.

Nonetheless, the coronavirus catastrophe has laid bare just how tied up in red tape the USDA’s commodity buying system can be. The process typically takes months from start to finish. And the department has historically focused on buying foods that can be stored for long periods — like canned fruit and meats and cheeses — and so is not accustomed to handling an influx of fresh food.

Sudden plunge in demand
In March, about a week after much of the country shut down restaurants, events and other food-service businesses, several produce groups wrote to USDA with an urgent plea to buy perishable commodities because at least $1 billion was “sitting stagnant in the supply chain.”

“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 groups wrote to Perdue. “These growers and companies are already donating to food banks and others in need and will continue ... but they are also facing their own economic crises.”

The department did not make any fresh purchases in response to that request, according to USDA records. Perdue has yet to respond to the letter.

Shutting down restaurants, cruise ships, hotels and schools may have been crucial for stopping the spread of the virus, but it quickly became a train wreck for the food system. The food-service sector represents about half of the food dollars spent and a quarter of food consumed in the country. Some 40 percent of the country’s fresh produce goes into food service, as consumers increasingly prefer to eat vegetables if someone else is preparing them.