The Trump administration has been accused by producers and politicians of letting masses of American produce rot in fields even as food banks struggle to meet demand during the coronavirus crisis.
With the demand for produce down – and fresh goods destined for restaurants and private suppliers destroyed – Democrats and producers have called on the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) to step up its efforts to stop waste.
“Every day that passes, fresh produce is being ploughed under and milk is being disposed of while long lines form at many food banks,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a statement on Friday. Praising the announcement of a new programme to buy up surplus food, he added: “USDA is demonstrating a willingness to try a new approach to find solutions to these challenges. We stand ready to help in any way we can.”
Mr Duvall had written to the USDA last month demanding action, alongside the food bank non-profit Feeding America, which has reported a 70-per-cent rise in usage at its sites since the pandemic began.
According to a Politico report, tens of millions of pounds of produce are estimated to have been wasted since start of the outbreak.
Critics have said the programme of USDA assistance has come too late and may not go far enough. Under the scheme, the USDA intends to partner with regional and local distributors to buy $3bn-worth (£2.4bn) of produce that will be transported to food banks and American non-profit groups. The purchasing plan is part of a $19bn (£15bn) Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program to provide financial support to the sector.
Florida congresswoman Val Demings, a Democrat, said in a tweet: “The USDA’s assistance program for farmers is a start, but woefully inadequate. It’s too late for many Florida farmers to benefit, and direct payments don’t come close to covering losses. This support should be expanded.”
Those comments were echoed by Florida’s agricultural commissioner, Nikki Fried, who said on Twitter that she had “serious concerns over payment caps that only cover a fraction of crop losses”.
In an interview on CNN earlier this month Tom Vilsack, an Obama administration agriculture secretary and current president of the US Dairy Export Council, described the current crisis facing farmers as a “significant misalignment” of demand and supply. He said at the time that “the government couldn’t help [farmers] because the USDA was out of money”.
Some officials and farmers now warn that more fresh produce will be wasted before goods are packed and transported under the USDA scheme.
Brittany Lee, a blueberry farmer and executive director of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, told Politico: “By the time that comes through, it won’t help Florida.”
Meanwhile, other producers have taken action and donated produce to those in need. In Idaho, one potato farmer gave away almost 2 million potatoes after demand for his crop fell.
In a statement, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue said that the agency had responded effectively to the situation.
“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic,” commented Mr Perdue.
It comes after more than 26 million Americans claimed unemployment – many of whom have turned to food banks for assistance.
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