Many Americans may be surprised and confused to see farmers dumping milk down the drain or letting vegetables rot in their fields.
Why would they be destroying food at a time when grocery stores and food pantries struggle to keep pace with surging demand during the coronavirus pandemic?
As sociologists with a specialty in agriculture and food, we study how the structure of the food system affects people’s lives and the environment. Seeing food destroyed at a time when people are going hungry highlights both short- and long-term problems with this system.
A tale of two supply chains
Surprisingly, the supply chain for food bears a striking similarity to that of another product that has experienced shortages: toilet paper.
Like the toilet paper market, the food industry has two separate supply chains for consumer and commercial use. On the consumer side are grocery and convenience stores that focus on small purchases. The commercial side represents restaurants and institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals and corporate cafeterias that purchase large quantities of foods in bulk. Ultimately, commercial institutions purchase in sizes that exceed the storage capacity of most households and food pantries.
While the commercial and the consumer supply chains are different, there are some commonalities: Both are complex, cover long distances and rely on just-in-time production. Both are also increasingly concentrated, meaning that there are only a few companies between farmers and consumers that process and distribute raw agricultural goods into edible food. For example, on the commercial side, Sysco and U.S. Foods control an estimated 75% of the market for food distribution.
These characteristics make the supply chains more vulnerable to disruptions.
In 2018, over half of all U.S. spending on food was on the commercial side of the supply chain. The introduction of social distancing measures in March forced schools, corporate cafeterias and many restaurants to close. As a result, a lot of food intended for commercial use no longer had a buyer.