What’s Going on With Our Food Supply?

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We’re all hearing stories about our food supply and things like farmers dumping milk, plowing under crops, and maybe no meats. Let’s look at some of these questions.

Q. Why are farmers dumping milk at the farm while grocery store shelves are sometimes bare?

A. Pre COVID-19, about 54% of food spending occurred in restaurants and cafeterias, and that sector of the economy has basically shut down. Also, there was a dramatic spike in demand for food in grocery stores from panicked consumers who wanted to “stock up” on food that they normally hadn’t purchased, this created a demand the industry was not prepared to meet. For example, milk must be processed (homogenized and pasteurized) for safety before consumers can use it. Many dairy processors were set up to package milk in cartons for institutions, schools, colleges and restaurants so they can’t put milk into the jugs you see at the grocery store. This leaves milk out there with nowhere to go due to less demand and a lack of processing capability.

Q. If farmers are being paid low prices for calves, why is beef higher in the store?

A. Here in the Southeast, most beef farmers sell what we call “feeder calves”. These are animals that have been weaned from their mothers and are then sent to other farms to be grown larger. As of the last week in April, about 25% of the beef packing industry in the US was shut down. This disruption in processing leads to a decrease in cattle from feedyards being moved to processing plants. This means those farmers that buy feeder cattle don’t need as many because their space for animals is smaller since they are having to hold animals longer before processing, so they don’t need as many feeder calves. Also, the processing plants that are running are moving slower, so less meat is coming out. Now supply and demand takes over. With less meat coming out, grocery stores have to pay more to get the meat and the increase in price is passed to the consumer.

Q. Why can’t produce that is being plowed under be shared with food banks or other places?

A. In some cases, produce can be stored in a warehouse for a short period of time. Fresh produce is perishable, so it won’t last for a long period of time. In most cases, produce requires refrigeration. Unfortunately, many food banks don’t have the equipment or volunteers to take bulk quantities of fresh produce and convert it to products that we can consume or distribute it out in refrigerated vehicles. It’s also costly to harvest and transport food. The unfortunate result is that food is sometimes dumped, discarded or fed to livestock. No farmer takes this decision lightly and most people don’t fully understand exactly how much produce is grown on an acre. For example, an acre of tomatoes will produce between 20-25 TONS of tomatoes. Most farmers in areas where produce is grown in large quantities can’t afford to produce, harvest, and then donate large amounts. In these cases it makes more business sense to plow them under if processing can’t be done.

We are working on answering more of your questions regarding our food supply. We will cover a few more next Monday!