Food Waste Piles Up as Pandemic Disrupts Supply Chain
Sat, January 28, 2023

Food Waste Piles Up as Pandemic Disrupts Supply Chain

Billions of dollars worth of food is going to waste as producers and growers in the US face a massive surplus of highly perishable goods. / Photo by: Victoria 1 via Shutterstock


Billions of dollars worth of food is going to waste as producers and growers in the US face a massive surplus of highly perishable goods. While grocery stores are struggling to keep their shelves stocked with non-perishable items, such as dried pasta, farmers have been forced to plow their vegetables back into the dirt and dump fresh milk as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupts the supply chain, according to the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

Impact of the pandemic on the food service industry

The shutdown in the foodservice, which encompasses all business functions, services, and activities involved in serving and preparing food for people, has impacted the supply chain as well. Roughly 50% of the food grown in the US was destined for schools, restaurants, cruise ships, theme parks, and stadiums. However, these establishments have also canceled large orders for dairy and produce. The pandemic has completely shifted the markets away from commercial food services to retail and grocery stores.

As a result, farms that depend heavily on large contracts from firms that service chain restaurants, colleges, and schools suddenly found themselves with no client to purchase their products. National milk marketing cooperative in the US Dairy Farmers of America estimates that farmers are dumping as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk every day amid the health crisis.

Between March to May, the impact of the pandemic in farm losses alone could reach $1.32 billion. This is based on the estimate of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), an alliance of more than 116 member groups that work to promote and enhance sustainable farm and food policy at a federal level.



Matching supply with demand in the supply chain management

Agriculture officials in the country insist that supply is not the issue but matching such supply with demand and delivering it to areas where it’s needed the most.

Florida-based vegetable grower Paul Allen of RC Hatton farms shares that half of his cabbage and green bean crops would have been intended for food service. Now, he is plowing 5 million to 6 million pounds of vegetables back into his farms. Even the retail industry cannot absorb it and the vegetables that go unharvested have to be mulched back into the ground. Mulching means to cover the soil between plants with a layer of material to retain moisture in the soil as mulches decompose.

Allen shares that his friends growing tomato also find themselves in the same situation. About 80% or more of their crops destined for foodservice went back into the fields. “Everybody’s in the same situation,” he said.

South Florida produces most vegetables for American consumers, particularly in early spring and in the winter. Now, the cost of picking and packing the produce is even higher than the market price. Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association’s director of public affairs Lisa Lochridge said that it has become a “disastrous situation” for the South Florida growers who are expecting a productive harvest.

Salinas Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in California, growing about 70% of the lettuce crop in the country, has also been hit hard by the pandemic. Keeping farmworkers socially distanced and safe in the fields also results in slower harvesting. American Farmland Trust’s California regional director Kara Heckert said that a lot of vegetables are being left on the filed and more are sitting in the storage facilities. The situation is creating a disproportionate effect on smaller farms and warm-weather states. It was like an overnight shift in a significant part of the country’s food system.


Salinas Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in California, has been hit hard by the pandemic. / Photo by: Ken Wolter via Shutterstock


Confusion in the supply chain pipeline

Heckert also pointed out a "confusion" in the supply chain pipeline, where grocery stores are limiting the amount of milk that people can purchase, believing that it will run out. That is a disconnection in the supply chain. In the last six weeks alone, dairy futures prices (future delivery but at a price set today) of the country suddenly declined. What’s more of a concern is that spring is a productive season for dairy cows so it would mean more supply but less demand in the market.

Food waste in supply chains

In the US, food waste is estimated have been between 30 to 40% of the food supply before the pandemic. The estimate is based on the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Also, 31% of food loss was at the consumer and retail levels. This amounts to approximately $161 billion worth of food. Such an estimate of food waste in the US is higher than the European Union's.

In 2012, scientific online publication Our World in Data shared that annual food waste across supply chains in the UK is 46.5 million tons at the household level, 16.9 million tons in manufacturing, 10.5 million tons in catering and hospitality, 9.1 million tons in production, and 4.6 million tons in retail and wholesale level. Now, the EU has opened green lanes for trucks carrying farm goods to overcome the hurdles in transporting food and farm goods whereas the United States maintained strict border controls that have interrupted the access of farms to migrant labor. As a result, it worsened an already massive problem in the industry.

German database company Statista surveyed 980 respondents in the US and found that 55% of them think that consumers are responsible for a large amount of wasted food in the country, followed by restaurants (43%), the system in general (33%), grocery stores (32%), the government placing rules on what kind of food can be sold (15%), food manufacturers (15%), and other (1%).



What can be done?

As the supply chain is facing coronavirus challenges, some things can be done at the consumer level to reduce food waste. Now that people have more time at home, they can better understand the date labels and prepare food in batches to be eaten later, Dana Ganders of nonprofit ReFED suggested. ReFED works with governments, nonprofits, and businesses to help reduce food loss and waste. On the part of online retailers, they can order more accurately from their sources to meet the demand.  

During a health crisis, efficient solutions are needed more than ever to reduce food waste and loss and increase food availability in the market.