The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined weaknesses in the U.S. food supply chain as the highly integrated network based on just-in-time delivery clogged up amid a collapse in consumer demand, the closing of key plants, and the slaughtering of livestock and dumping of products by farmers who had no place to send them.
To many, the U.S. food supply chain seemed to break in April, when thousands of suddenly unemployed people lined up at food pantries while dairy farmers poured out rivers of milk, produce growers plowed under crops and livestock farmers destroyed animals as commercial buyers had closed or slowed their operations because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s been quite a scramble,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told former secretaries Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman during a May 12 forum on food. “These unprecedented times have put the supply chain to the test. We’ve had some hits and we’ve suffered some cuts and bruises along the way.”
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The Census Bureau’s advance monthly data released Friday showed the damage. The agency reported that retail and food services sales for April 2020 were $403.9 billion, a decrease of 16.4 percent from March. That decline wasn’t just a lost market for farmers. The shuttered restaurants and food businesses are a large source of supplies that food banks use to feed the poor.
“I think that this has shown the federal government didn’t have something in place that could quickly address the dramatic shifts in the supply chain for perishable items like fresh fruits and vegetables,” Mollie Van Lieu, senior director of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “There just wasn’t a system in place to press the button, pull the lever and get the fresh produce to places that needed it immediately.”
Barbara Glenn, CEO for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said her members “felt like they are in triage.” They worked with the USDA and other federal agencies to develop alternatives to dumping milk or crops, she said, adding that Florida, New York, Wisconsin and Vermont stepped in with money or partnerships to process milk into products that could be donated to food banks.
The “vulnerabilities of the food supply system started to pinch and poke out, and that’s when we saw these images and we see issues around the meat and poultry processing as well as with depopulation or euthanizing animals because there’s no place to process them,” she said.
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COVID-19 is raising questions about how quickly USDA can move to relieve farmers and ranchers of price-depressing surpluses and donate to food banks or use in federal nutrition programs like school lunches and breakfast that are under the department’s jurisdiction. USDA’s use of commodity and food purchases, often done to reduce oversupply of agricultural goods and stabilize prices, is a tool the department frequently employs.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a key purchase program the department often uses to provide nonprofit groups with largely processed and shelf-stable foods. But the program’s bid and contract process often takes months to complete.
The department opted in late April to create a new program, Farmers to Families Food Box, to address the COVID-19 surpluses using $1.2 billion in appropriated funds. The program launched Friday in Maryland.
In the weeks before the USDA announced its commodity purchase plans, slaughterhouses and processing plants were closing as workers became ill and the federal government provided little guidance for plants and farmers to handle the crisis. Hog producers began euthanizing piglets and market-ready animals that they could not send to slaughter.
President Donald Trump signed an order April 28 invoking 1950 legislation to keep plants open.
“It was so painful to watch farmers dispose of animals when there were thousands of people in line asking for charitable food assistance,” Katie Fitzgerald, a top executive for Feeding America, said at the same digital forum where Perdue spoke. She said COVID-19 shows the need for greater flexibility in the federal system to move quickly in a crisis.
Just how many people need food aid amid the pandemic is unclear. More than 36 million people have filed for jobless benefits in the past eight weeks. The USDA doesn’t have any data on food stamp use more recent than the 36.8 million who received them in February, before COVID-19 became widespread.
The department was quick to say it would ensure that low-income children would be able to get meals even if the schools where they typically get meals were shut down. But the USDA doesn’t have national data on how many meals school districts and nonprofit groups have provided under waivers that eased rules for delivering the meals.
In Delaware, Teresa Youngcourt credited USDA’s school meal program with serving 1.1 million take-home meals to low-income children in April. Youngcourt, the food distribution manager for the Delaware Office of Management and Budget’s Government Support Services, also said the USDA quickly approved waivers that the state needed to expand food delivery to older low-income people who would normally have had to eat those meals in central locations.
Food bank experiences
Food banks report a sharp increase in need. They also say the USDA’s role is an essential one.
Fitzgerald’s group, Feeding America, has a network of 200 food banks that in turn distribute food to 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. The charities use a mix of foods they’ve acquired through food or money donations from individuals, businesses and grocery stores.
In 2019, the USDA provided 1 billion pounds of food through its TEFAP program, with 3 billion pounds coming from donations by grocers, food retailers, farmers, producers, manufacturers and direct purchases. The food banks also received $50 million from TEFAP to meet transportation and distribution costs, according to the organization’s 2019 annual report.
At Philabundance in Pennsylvania, a food bank that is part of Feeding America, programs manager Hilary Stiebel said via email that the organization had largely relied on its own food purchases and on local donations like those from 200 grocers who send produce or other items in danger of going to waste. The food was enough to feed 90,000 people a week.
But she said COVID-19 has increased the demand by 60 percent. The USDA, which has made donations over the years through programs designed to shore up farm prices, will become more important.
“The availability and access to the TEFAP program at this time is crucial to keeping up with the demand,” Stiebel said, adding that Philabundance is preparing to receive donations from the USDA’s Farmers to Families Box program.
“We are actively meeting with other food banks across the Feeding America network and learning of best practices, implementing new mass-scale drive thru distributions, and working as a collaborative network as new information becomes available daily,” Stiebel said.
In neighboring Delaware, Nikko Brady, deputy principal assistant for the state Agriculture Department, said it would be impossible to meet the food need without USDA contributions through programs such as TEFAP and the Commodity Supplemental Food program that focuses on people age 60 or older.
“I know that if it wasn’t for USDA commodities, providers like Food Bank [of Delaware] would be sort of underwater,” Brady said, referring to the statewide nonprofit agency that operates food pantries and works with anti-hunger organizations. “It would be tough to meet the demand because it’s been so high, and it’s been high with a quick turnaround.”
But Brady said it isn’t clear whether Delaware will participate in the USDA’s new Farmers to Families Food Box program because the department didn’t award any first-round contracts to companies in Delaware.
“Because there were no contract awardees in the state, I don’t know logistically if it makes sense to source from some point in another state when there are ways for providers to source directly from providers here,” Brady said.