Several industries have been disrupted since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., including the food supply chain. From dumped milk to piles of uneaten onions and potatoes, this was just some of the food going to waste on farms across America due to COVID-19-related shutdowns.
“Really, its impact on the food supply chain started in March,” said Jack Buffington, a supply chain expert currently developing the supply chain program at the University of Denver. “Most of us who have been in the supply chain have never seen an event like this happen.”
While farmers were dumping or burying products, food banks were missing out on some much-needed supplies, and dealing with growing demand. So were grocery stores, as restaurants were closed and consumer buying habits changed.
“More of the retail food market went down and more of the consumer home food market went up,” Buffington explained. “This caused a major shock in the supply chain where you had this situation where some foods were going to waste and some foods were in high demand.”
First, the federal government stepped in to help. The USDA was given up to $3 billion through the Coronavirus Assistance Program to buy fresh produce, dairy, and meat from farmers and then distribute that to those in need.
And then there were nonprofit organizations like FarmLink.
“We matched a farm in Idaho, an onion farm, to our local food bank in Los Angeles,” Max Goldman with FarmLink explained. “We delivered 50,000 pounds of onions to them.”
He said that was their proof of concept.
Goldman is a student at Brown University. He and a group of students saw the disruption in the supply chain, and decided to do something about it.
“A lot of what we do is finding food that would’ve been sent to the dump,” he said.
So, FarmLink was born to help with food waste.
“We’ve done 2 million pounds in seven days,” Goldman said.
In just two months, they’ve reallocated 4 million pounds of food. They pay farmers their cost with donations and grants they receive, and help get the food to food banks. Goldman said the farmers are generally grateful
“One of the first farmers we worked with, he said the day he has to dump his food is the worst day of his life. He works all year to basically produce this food, and for him to have to dig a hole in his backyard and just take a dump truck and put all his potatoes and onions or whatever it is, he said it makes him cry, and it’s the worst day of his life,” Goldman said. “Even if he lost money on it, he was glad he could send this food to people in need during this time.”
So far, they’ve delivered food to approximately 30 states.
“This is not a new issue and it's been accelerated and made more public due to coronavirus, but every year there’s over 60 billion pounds of food waste,” Goldman said.
Buffington said the work of FarmLink and organizations doing similar work is just a drop in the bucket, but it’s promising.
“Small in scale of the overall supply chain, but it’s huge in this opportunistic saving of food,” he explained.
Buffington sees this type of work as a Band-Aid on the bigger issue, but it could open eyes to solutions down the road.
“Supply chains work really well on stability,” Buffington said. “It’s tough to think about innovation, which is disruption, when you're worried about a disruption to your current model.”
“I think when we pull out of this you’re going to see remarkable opportunities for innovation,” he said.
For now, FarmLink and other organizations are working to make sure food doesn’t go to waste. Goldman’s goal is to move over a million pounds of food a day.
“We’ve had tens of thousands of people reaching out wanting to help, and that’s just so uplifting and really gives you hope,” Goldman said.