Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has increased in the United States. This is particularly true for households with young children. According to Brookings Institute, which has been named “Top Think Tank in the World” every year since 2008, by the end of April, more than 20 percent of households in the United States and 40 percent of households with mothers with children 12 and under were food insecure. These mothers said, “The food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have enough money to get more.” The incidence of hardship among children as measured by responses to this question has increased 460 percent.
At the same time, farmers are destroying their products. The New York Times reports that farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. Idaho farmers have dug huge ditches to bury millions of pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.
Carl Grooms, owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City, Florida, says that berry orders evaporated overnight, causing the strawberry harvest to collapse. With no demand for his product, Mr. Grooms watched his strawberries rot, creating a stench that permeated the land: “We’re not just going to let [the food] die, we’ll go in and destroy it. It’s a mental thing, you don’t want to see your crop rot and suffer.”
Why are farmers destroying their products as millions of Americans line up by the thousands outside food banks? This is because farmers have two major buyers: restaurants and supermarkets. And, since restaurants throughout the state and country have begun to close to curb the spread of the virus, the farms that sell to restaurants have lost their buyers.
Selling to restaurants is a completely different animal. For example, in the case of eggs, commercial kitchens take delivery of huge pallets of eggs, often pre-shelled, while supermarkets prefer smaller cartons. Restaurants take delivery of uncut sides of bacon while supermarkets prefer thinly sliced, packaged bacon. Farms are struggling to shift their supply chain from restaurants to supermarkets. This is endangering their businesses, increasing global food waste and enabling the highest level of childhood food insecurity we have seen this century.
The solution? Create a rigorous safety protocol for restaurants, and then pay them to feed young people with the food they used to buy from farmers. Restaurants are already well-positioned: they have the cooks, they have the equipment and they have the supply-chains with farmers. By turning restaurants into feeding houses of America during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can make sure that these hungry young children have a place to eat. This would also help the farms and restaurants that have been devastated as well as prevent the rampant and saddening food waste we are seeing.
Congress is already on the ball. Last week, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA-05), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA-02), Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL-13), Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) joined Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen in introducing the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act.
This bill allows the Federal government to pay 100 percent of the cost to states and localities so that they can partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare nutritious meals for vulnerable populations, such as seniors and underprivileged children. These partnerships will support businesses and small farmers as the Coronavirus pandemic continues.
“Our work providing nourishment and hope in the wake of disaster has taught us an important lesson,” said Chef Andrés, founder of the relief organization World Central Kitchen. “When we empower neighbors to care for one another and restaurants and non-profits to ensure food and nutrition are not forgotten, we give our communities an opportunity to combine response with recovery to create the possibility of a better tomorrow. I am proud to join Representatives Thompson, McGovern, and Davis and Senators Harris and Scott in this effort to make sure we reach every American in need of a humble plate of food.”
“Too many families are going hungry during this pandemic, and it’s not because America is running low on food,” said McGovern. “This hunger crisis is a political problem, and we need to think outside the box to solve it. As millions of restaurants and their employees struggle to get by, the FEMA FEED Act will give states more flexibility to provide meals for vulnerable populations while supporting local businesses at the same time. I’m proud to introduce this bill alongside Representatives Thompson and Davis and Senators Harris and Scott.”
We need to step up as a country and do the right thing. The children are counting on it.