The closing of restaurants, schools, and hotels has left many farmers with no choice but to put thousands of gallons of milk and pounds and pounds of fresh produce to waste. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week. Although this decline in demand from restaurants, schools, and hotels has translated to a spike in food sales among grocery stores, as families are forced to eat at home, the increases are not great enough to accept all the perishable food produced by farmers. Furthermore, it is very costly for farmers to incur new expenses that they had not planned for, such as new forms of packaging or transportation to accommodate grocery sales. It may seem like a very minor alteration to switch from packaging larger quantities to smaller ones, but in actuality it would require millions of dollars of investment that many farmers simply don’t have the capacity to spend.
Some farmers have donated portions of their surplus to food banks, but unfortunately fresh produce is not the most viable commodity to distribute in large quantities to families in need; the real demand is in nonperishable items that have a long shelf life, can feed more people, and can be easily distributed. Additionally, refrigerator storage is limited, and shortages of volunteers (many elderly folk are no longer able to volunteer, as they are the most vulnerable to the virus) makes the distribution of perishable items much more cumbersome. Equally unfortunate is that farmers cannot make a profit off of this; the costs of transportation and donating their produce for nothing in return is much too costly. Shey Myers, a third generation onion farmer whose fields are located on the Oregon-Idaho border, quotes: “There is no way to redistribute the quantities that we are talking about.” Many farmers have lost all ties to hope.
Farmers who previously relied on international business exchanges are being hit hardest as currency fluctuations make exports unprofitable. All they are left to do is plant the same crops as they would otherwise, and hope that this all blows over soon. Among the other farmers who are incurring the greatest losses to their business are dairy farmers; cows need to be milked multiple times a day, regardless of the demand for their milk. Public schools and coffee shops are some of their major dairy consumers that have practically vanished, and this unfortunately coincides with the time of year that cows produce at their fastest rate. These farmers are scrambling for any possible means of avoiding such mass amounts of waste. Some are even lobbying pizza chains to increase the amount of cheese on each slice.
Meanwhile, Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, with more than 200 affiliates, has projected a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months alone. Last week, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that he was donating $100 million to the group — the largest single donation in its history, but still less than a tenth of what it needs. It is so unfortunate that there is no efficient or profitable means for farmers to turn their surplus to benefit the shortages food banks are facing.
Speaking of Jeff Bezos, we continue to see through this pandemic that the rich are getting richer and the poor continue to suffer. Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, saw his wealth grow by $24 billion since the world’s been largely in shutdown. This brings his net worth to $143.1 billion, nearly $40 billion higher than the second-place Bill Gates, and almost twice that of Warren Buffett. So while small town farmers, lower class families, and racial groups whose socio-economic status leaves them most susceptible to the virus continue to suffer, the richest man in the world is only getting richer. There is much more to be said regarding how the pandemic has highlighted and enhanced the structural inequality of the US, but this warrants its own discussion.