AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that Americans, on average, will consume 220 pounds of meat this year. As for milk and cheese, the average is a bit less, 200 pounds. That's near record demand. Despite that, farmers are producing this food faster than they can sell it. St. Louis Public Radio's Jonathan Ahl reports the glut is creating problems of what to do with all that perishable food.
JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Chicken, beef, pork, cheese and milk are in large supply. And it all has to go somewhere. That usually means cold storage. But finding a place for that is getting harder. Corey Rosenbusch heads the Global Cold Chain Alliance, a trade group representing the cold storage industry. He says right now the facilities he represents are at 86 percent capacity.
COREY ROSENBUSCH: In our space, anywhere from 82 to 90 is considered full.
AHL: There are lots of reasons why there's so much extra meat and dairy out there. Increased efficiency is pushing production higher as demand is relatively flat compared to a decade ago. Tariffs are also hurting exports. The federal government has stepped in to try to distribute the excess.
UNIDENTIFIED FOOD BANK VOLUNTEER: Hey. Half the cheese off to the next one.
AHL: About two-dozen food bank volunteers are working to set up a makeshift drive-through for a special food distribution day in a vacant parking lot in St. Louis. There are six pallets, each stacked more than 6 feet high with half-gallon jugs of whole milk waiting to be put in the trunks of the cars that drive through. Lenora Gooden is in charge of operations for the St. Louis Area Foodbank and says this is an unscheduled distribution.
LENORA GOODEN: So it's a blessing to us because it's also milk and the stuff that can go back quickly that we don't have to purchase because we don't get it donated so much in these quantities. So we'll take whatever they send us.
AHL: This extra food comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the effort to help farmers hurt by tariffs. The USDA is buying 250 million pounds of meat and 65 million pounds of cheese and milk to distribute to food banks across the country. In St. Louis today, it's just dairy. The meat should arrive next month. With cold storage at capacity and food banks inundated, something's got to give. Scott Brown is an agricultural economist with the University of Missouri. He says production has been outpacing demand for long enough that he sees a breaking point.
SCOTT BROWN: It is sending the signal to the supply side of these industries to at least slow the growth that we've seen for the last few years. So as I look ahead in 2019, and 2020 in particular, it seems like we're going to be - find a little better balance.
AHL: But meat and dairy producers don't see it that way. Economist Bill Roenigk works for a number of meat and trade groups and says despite the surplus and lower prices, more efficient meat production has many farmers in the black.
BILL ROENIGK: Chicken is making money. Certain parts of beef are making money. Certain parts of the pork industry are making money. So in that sense, if you're making money, the signals are you should continue to do what you're doing or produce a bit more.
AHL: There's been an increased demand for some of the food piling up. China's pigs were hit with an outbreak of African swine fever so China bought 23,000 tons of U.S. pork, despite the tariff. That's meat that would have otherwise gone into cold storage or to overloaded food banks. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl.