Food Shortages? Nope, Too Much Food In The Wrong Places : The Salt Some Americans, fearing food shortages from COVID-19, have cleaned out supermarket shelves. Yet there's too much food in some places. Farmers are dumping milk and vegetables that they can't sell.

Food Shortages? Nope, Too Much Food In The Wrong Places

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The food supply chain in this country is breaking down. There are millions of people without work lining up at food banks. But simultaneously, farmers in Florida and elsewhere are throwing out perfectly good food. NPR's Dan Charles explains what's happening.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In normal times, America's food delivery system is amazing - so much food moving from farm to table so cheaply. And Jay Johnson, a vegetable broker in Immokalee, Fla., is one of the people who makes that system work - buying from farmers, selling to stores and restaurants.

JAY JOHNSON: You're getting text messaging, emails and phone calls all day and all night. Like, what's your price on this? How many of this? What's the grade? Can you do a better deal? You know, you're doing all these micronegotiations throughout the day.

CHARLES: And then on Tuesday, March 24, the phones stopped ringing.

JOHNSON: Wednesday, the 25 - super quiet. Thursday, now we're getting nervous.

CHARLES: His most reliable customers - chain restaurants like Applebee's and TGI Fridays, they closed for now. The companies that make food for schools didn't need it anymore, nor did cruise ships - all the places that people in the industry call food service. And it happened right when Florida's cucumbers and tomatoes and green beans were ready for harvest.

JOHNSON: Now you're sitting there with all this production, perfect weather. And everyone's like - oh, no.

CHARLES: He called up a vegetable-growing couple, Kim and Mike Jamerson, near the city of Fort Myers.

JOHNSON: I'm like, this is not good. We're in trouble here. And it's to the point where I'm going to fill my warehouse up, and I'm going to have to tell you to stop picking.

CHARLES: And that's when Kim Jamerson told workers to stop picking fields of yellow squash because harvesting takes money.

KIM JAMERSON: We cannot pick the produce if we cannot sell it because we cannot afford the payroll every week.

CHARLES: In other parts of the country, it's happening with milk. Schools aren't serving milk. Pizza Hut doesn't need as much cheese. Grocery sales are up but not enough to fill the gap. So some milk co-ops are refusing to take all the milk that the country's cows are producing. Farmers are just dumping it instead. It's even more extreme for Florida's tomato growers. They sell 80% of their crop to places that are now shut down. So they're plowing up some fields instead of harvesting them. And it's painful for vegetable farmers like Kim Jamerson.

JAMERSON: We've abandoned some fields. We've just had to walk out of them because we couldn't sell it - beautiful vegetables that really could go elsewhere. It could go into food banks and hospitals and rest homes.

CHARLES: And there are people who need that food. Food banks and pantries are struggling to get enough food for millions of children who aren't getting meals at schools anymore and the newly unemployed. Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, the umbrella organization for food banks, says they're used to receiving lots of donated food from grocery stores, food that didn't sell. But now that supermarket food is selling out.

CLAIRE BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: We're seeing as much as a 35% reduction in that donation stream.

CHARLES: We're hearing of places in the food service, you know, supply chain that are dumping product. Are you getting any of that?

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: We're getting some of it. We're not getting enough of it.

CHARLES: Getting that food means creating new supply chains, getting to know new suppliers, maybe packing the food in different ways so it's easier for food banks to distribute. And it also takes money to pay for all the work involved.

Dan Charles, NPR News.


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