Farmers dumping milk and plowing tender greens back into the soil. Consumers walking through sparse aisles at the grocery store. Americans waiting in mile-long lines for food banks. The fragility of our food systems has played out in a troubling dichotomy: enormous amounts of nutritious food are being wasted while millions of Americans struggle to feed their families. As we increasingly feel the impacts of COVID-19 on our food supply chains, consumer behaviors, business solutions and policy actions have rapidly evolved to accommodate stay-at-home orders and public health protocols.
Following President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency March 13th, grocery stores and other food retail locations, in addition to e-commerce channels, have seen soaring demand amidst the closures of restaurants and other foodservice businesses around the country. According to IRI, which has been tracking the virus’ impact on consumer shopping behavior, in the week ending March 22nd, consumers spent 17.9% more dollars per trip on retail food purchases as compared to the same week of the year prior.
Throughout April, the consumer stock-up trend has since softened, following the initial panic buying – but what remains to be true is that Americans are now spending more at grocery stores than eating out for the first time since 1996.
Amidst this surge in demand at food retail locations, suppliers face growing logistical challenges in getting their food products to consumers for a variety of reasons. Some suppliers are being forced to find new retail channels due to declines in their foodservice business, which is time-consuming and may involve adjusting to new retailers’ requirements for product portion sizing and packaging. For producers wishing to donate their products to local food banks and pantries, challenges exist for bulk donations due to a shortage of labor and transportation to donation locations.
Besides supply chain logistics, there has been a decrease in available labor for food processing and fruit and vegetable harvesting, which has led to crops going to waste in fields around the country. Many producers are resorting to dumping product versus trying to sell or donate them for these myriad reasons. The New York Times reported on recent spikes in food waste on farms – with estimates that farmers are “dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day” and a “single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.”
In response to these unprecedented challenges, the food industry is acting through a broad range of innovations to combat the paradox of mounting food loss and waste and rising food insecurity. As the impacts of COVID-19 continue, consumer food buying behaviors are changing dramatically and retailers are struggling to keep needed products in stock. Accurate demand forecasting is essential to anticipate these changes while preventing food waste, and several organizations are working to model future impacts to help food supply chains predict changes in consumer behaviors. One example is Crisp, a current Padilla|FoodMinds client, which recently launched a new real-time data modeling tool that allows retailers to leverage data from a leading European grocer to more accurately forecast what U.S. purchases will look like in the next two weeks.
Numerous restaurants, including national chains such as Subway, Panera, and Denny’s now sell groceries at select locations, which is not only helping consumers access needed grocery products during the pandemic, but also helping reduce food waste by finding a home for these items.
Numerous organizations are developing creative solutions to connect excess food to consumers in need. Publix, for example, recently announced that it will purchase surplus milk and produce from local farmers and provide it to Feeding America food banks. Door Dash is using its food delivery capabilities to expand its “Project Dash” initiative to address the growing need for last mile delivery to vulnerable populations, food banks and food pantries. These are just some of the many ways that companies are leveraging their core competencies and partnerships to develop creative solutions to combat food waste and fight food insecurity during the pandemic.
At the policy level, several federal government actions have been taken to address widespread food dumping due to disappearing market channels. On April 17th, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Perdue announced the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Through this initiative, USDA is partnering with food distributors to purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products, package and redistribute them to nonprofits for those in need. The success of this program is largely dependent on relationships between farmers, shippers, suppliers and other stakeholders across the food industry.
To maintain access to ample food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is providing flexibility to the food industry to meet demand through nutrition labeling flexibility for retail locations and menu labeling for chain restaurants. There is also a growing list of states where SNAP participants can use their benefits to buy groceries online. In requests to USDA, policymakers said the pandemic is the perfect time to expand the online SNAP pilot program, created by the 2014 Farm Bill, to help low-income families stay fed while staying home. These are just some of the many policy actions being taken to prevent food waste and meet demand from the growing food insecure population.
It remains to be seen whether these shifts in consumer behaviors and food supply chains will continue once the pandemic ends. What is clear is that flexibility, new partnerships and innovative solutions will be key to combat food waste and connect our food supply with consumers amidst unprecedented challenges.
Katie Padilla, MA, PMP, is a Director at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, based in the Washington, D.C., office. She co-leads the agency’s Healthy, Sustainable Food Systems (HSFS) team. Carla Curle, MS, is an Account Executive at FoodMinds, based in the San Francisco, CA office and is an active member of the HSFS team.