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Pantry panic and food waste: Tracing the roots of food shortage and waste in the time of COVID-19

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Toilet paper, sanitizer, baby wipes, water, rice, eggs — the list of “limit one” items at stores like Target and Costco continues to grow as panicked shoppers stock up on the “essentials.” Empty shelves, cleaned-out aisles and rising prices — the earliest symptoms of shortage — have become a familiar, often frustrating sight to consumers nationwide.

And yet, news headlines simultaneously report that farmers are destroying up to 750,000 unhatched eggs every week, dumping an estimated 3.7 million gallons of milk every day and plowing over fields still brimming with ripe produce. 

We are thus left with a paradox of sorts: Why are consumers seeing too little in stores when farmers seem to have too much product?

To get to the root of the problem, it is first important to understand why the volume of food waste has reached such unprecedented levels since the onset of the pandemic. It is not uncommon for farmers to destroy their produce on occasions of surplus when prices drop to levels such that waste is more profitable. As one might expect, widespread shelter-in-place orders and resultant restaurant closures have exacerbated the conditions that lead to profitable waste. In an interview with The Mercury News, Choice Lunch COO Keith Cosbey explains that the food service industry relies on an entirely separate supply chain from grocery stores. The loss of profits from restaurants, cafeterias and other wholesale buyers has disrupted this side of the supply chain, forcing farmers to either donate the surplus or develop new strategies to increase sales in the retail market.

So why not just donate everything? Unfortunately, food banks and other charitable organizations have limited refrigeration space for fresh produce, and a combination of financial stress and unfavorable currency conversion rates prevents exportation to areas in need. Thus, while it would be great if the U.S. could donate surplus food to food banks and other domestic charities or even share excess food with countries like Kenya, India and Honduras who are struggling with hunger en masse, it simply isn’t economically feasible for farmers.

The alternative — optimizing product for direct purchase by consumers — faces similar obstacles. Packaging equipment is expensive, and farms typically invest in more efficient bulk bagging machines to prepare their produce for distribution. As grocers tend to stock products in smaller quantities, producers have had to switch to less efficient machinery, driving up costs and discouraging smaller farms from making the switch.

What does the government have to say about all of this? Thus far, its response has focused on two fronts: providing financial aid and relaxing regulations on grocery products. Federal relief funds totaling $24 billion have been allocated to farmers as part of the new $2 trillion stimulus package. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to purchase $3 billion worth of meat, dairy and other products directly from farmers for redistribution to food banks and nonprofits. “Country of origin” labels — mandatory information included on grocery products concerning where they are from and how they are made — have also been temporarily suspended to aid farmers struggling to bring their products directly to consumers. Time will tell if these efforts are successful at relieving stress for the nation’s farms.

These federal measures, however, do not address the equally pressing issues of distribution. Wired reports that the trucking businesses that transport agricultural goods to grocers and markets are currently lagging as many drivers stay home due to the virus. Furthermore, increased border security and cessation of international travel has grounded air freight. With farms largely relying on immigrant workers, labor shortages are anticipated. This lack of efficient distribution mechanisms is likely the primary cause of the dairy and produce shortages we see on the consumer side. The product and demand for it exist, but we have limited means of obtaining it due to labor shortages.

Beyond voicing these concerns to government agencies or online via social media, how can we be smarter consumers, keeping these issues in mind? While the situation is likely to evolve further in response to government efforts, here are a few suggestions for what we can do to more effectively allocate the resources we have.

Don’t panic, be realistic. How many eggs do you really need? Can you actually finish that 3-pack of milk all on your own? Is the “family-sized” version truly the right amount for your household? Panic buying, especially of perishables, reliably contributes to food waste. Taking the time to make note of your household’s consumption habits will better inform your next trip to the grocery store and perhaps lighten the dead weight of your compost bin.

Look for fresh produce. If and only if you are able to go out regularly and your household consumption habits allow for it, buying fresh produce may encourage grocers to purchase more from struggling farmers and increase demand for truck drivers. Food banks generally have greater capacity for storing pantry staples and nonperishables. Making the switch to fresh produce will likely leave you with extra canned goods, which can be donated to those in need.

Volunteer! Relief organizations throughout the country have made it easy to get involved assisting higher risk populations in your local community. Bay Area nonprofit Helping Hands, for example, offers free, “no contact” delivery services for higher risk households. Deliveries are fulfilled by volunteers, and the extra business helps keep grocers and pharmacies in business.

With the stress of the epidemic at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it may be beneficial and perhaps even meditative to focus on our impact as individuals. The reality is that reality itself has become confusing and anxiety-inducing, so taking small steps toward improving things within our control seems like as good a place as any to start.

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Carissa Lee '22 is a writer for Arts & Life's Culture beat, an account manager for The Daily's Ad Sales team, and a member of the Social Media team. Her primary interests include Oxford commas, visual arts, and the culinary world--hence her passion for all things Arts & Life. When she's not obsessively scrolling through "Bon Appetit's" Instagram feed or going on long runs at 6 am to feel "productive," she is studying to major in Human Biology, with the intent to pursue a medical degree. Contact her anytime at carislee 'at' stanford.edu.