Toward the end of the Idaho-eastern Oregon storage season, tons of onions had to be composted in mid-April because of lost foodservice demand related to the COVID-19 crisis. ( Shay Myers/Owyhee Produce )

The disconnect between long lines at food banks during the COVID-19 crisis and images of wasted produce has struck a nerve with the American public.

“I was asked (in an ABC interview in mid-April), ‘With the lines at these food banks, why can’t you just donate your product?,’” said Shay Myers, CEO  Nyssa, Ore.-based Owyhee Produce.

Myers said Owyhee Produce buried tons of onions in fields because of depressed prices and the lack of foodservice demand in late March and April; jumbo onion demand, in particular, has dropped. Owhyee Produce has lost 500,000 pounds a week in foodservice sales since mid-March, he said. While the onions were harvested and in storage, Myers said that giving them to food banks is not possible in some instances because of packing and transportation costs.

The losses due to the shutdown of the foodservice sector and were “swift, staggering and devastating” to growers in Florida, said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

“There’s nowhere for the product to go and so some growers are having to make very difficult decisions to plow their crops under, and others are doing direct to consumers just anything they can do to find an outlet for their crops,” she said April 9.

The FFVA and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University are working to find buyers for growers.

Wasting away

High labor costs and market volatility for produce crops contribute to substantial food loss at the grower level, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

In a recent report, “Food loss: why food stays on the farm or off the market,”  USDA economists look at the reasons why fresh produce is left in fields. The study was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and doesn’t consider the drastic supply chain disruptions causing the current situation, but some of the factors are the same.

According to the study, price volatility, labor costs, lack of refrigeration infrastructure, appearance standards, consumer preferences and quality-based contracts can lead to on-farm food waste, according to the report.

The USDA said that fast-changing market conditions can may it unprofitable to harvest, pack and ship fruits and vegetables. Higher prices give growers the incentive to harvest more. 

“When prices rise, growers harvest more intensively (either by hiring more labor or by lowering product thresholds) and may have the incentive to send lower cosmetic-quality product to market, which can then be subject to increased loss further along the supply chain,” the report said.

Labor is a relatively high share of the cost in the supply chain. It’s nearly half  half of the share of production cost for lettuce and more than one-third for fresh tomatoes, spinach, and peaches. Rising wages and decreasing labor availability may combine to increase the costs to harvest the produce in a field, the report said. During times when harvest labor is costly, growers may abandon the crop before harvest or make other production and marketing decisions that directly affect levels of food loss.

Myers said donating produce seems like the right thing to do with excess supply, but it isn’t always economically feasible without assistance.

“There has to be some concessions made in that supply chain process, someone to step in and say, ‘Hey, I’ll cover the freight,’ or ‘I’ll cover the packing costs,’” he said. 

The USDA study said that economic benefits to the grower must be part of the solution to reduce food waste.

“If reducing food loss takes away resources devoted to farm profitability ... it is unlikely that any grower would choose to participate,” the report said. “However, if reducing food loss is considered alongside more traditional goals like improving farm income, industry adoption of food loss initiatives may be more likely.”

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