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Fixing the Covid Food Disaster Can Slash Climate Emissions

This article was originally written by Sarah McBride and published in Bloomberg Quint on August 13, 2020. 

By the end of April, Olivier Griss knew he had a problem. Coke Farm, the San Juan Bautista, Calif. business his stepfather started in 1981 where Griss now works as sales manager, was awash in a leafy salad ingredient: chicory. Specifically, treviso and castelfranco varieties that end up on plates in high-end restaurants. But high-end restaurants were largely closed, due to the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world.

“We held onto it for as long as we could,” Griss says, trying to find a buyer. When it was no longer fit for market, workers tilled it into the ground, along with tiny artichokes also popular with discerning chefs. “It hurt.”

Those fields of dirt-covered chicory became one more casualty in the battle against food waste, a scourge that contributes anywhere between 6% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. All of the world’s food waste taken together creates about the same climate emissions as India. That’s in part because food waste in landfills releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The coronavirus pandemic has cut greenhouse gases in some key ways, as people are flying and driving less. But food waste accounts for one reason why the drops likely won’t fall as low as hoped during the pandemic. And as the virus ebbs and flows, it will likely lead to more waste. (Evidence is emerging that home cooks are throwing away less food— but it’s too early to tell if it’s enough to compensate for the industrial-scale loss at farms.) Food organizations are working hard to fight that squandering, both at the source (farms) and the end point (consumers). If these organizations can tap into the shock engendered by images of scuttled harvests and dairy products during the early days of the pandemic, they could drive lasting transformation in food waste and climate change.

Griss’s predicament is a fancier version of the situation facing so many farmers across the country  starting earlier this spring. To consumers, it didn’t make sense. Why were farmers scuttling tons of perfectly good crops when empty grocery store shelves stretched aisles long, and when food bank lines ran miles long? But farms generally don’t sell directly to grocery stores, or to food banks, and changing distributors on the fly is tough.

“Certainly, it has made some things that were invisible more visible,” says Emily Broad Leib, faculty director of Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, speaking about the pandemic. Among them: the inflexibility of the food chain, the large numbers of Americans on the edge of hunger, the risky roles of workers in food processing, the incentives set up to deliver food in set ways, the damage food waste does to the environment. “My hope is that will lead to changes in how we use our natural resources.”

Full Harvest, a San Francisco-based startup, is on the forefront of these efforts. The company normally focuses on finding buyers for imperfect produce like mushy tomatoes or brown spotted lettuce. It recruits farmers to post products on an online marketplace it operates—and also invites food and beverage companies to use that same marketplace to buy the produce, which ends up in chips, juices and sauces. In March, a farmer in the network reached out to chief executive officer Christine Moseley, asking for urgent help with crops that buyers no longer wanted. At the same time, she heard from people who were seeing reports of exploding food waste along with exploding demand at food banks, and wondered if she could do anything about it. 

Since Full Harvest already had relationships with farms and with big food buyers, Moseley figured she could help farmers find homes for the extra produce.

Full Harvest had something many other well-meaning organizations didn’t: relationships with farmers, plus technology to track the components. She’s started trial programs in Oakland, Calif., in collaboration with Eat Learn Play, the organization founded by basketball star Steph Curry and his wife Ayesha, and World Central Kitchen, founded by celebrity chef José Andrés. The efforts grew when Salesforce Inc., which wanted to support minority-owned farmers, got involved. The organizations have now provided around 50,000  food boxes to food insecure Oakland families and expanded to New York City.

The volume of demand floored her.

“This pandemic has shone a light on the food system and how many improvements are needed,” Moseley says. “You have this system that is mostly offline, that is slow and opaque.”

About 2 million farms operate in the United States. Farm income from vegetables is about $20 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About half of all vegetables get sold to supermarkets, and half to food service—restaurants, cafeterias, schools and big processors.

Normally, this system hums. Farmers work with established buyers who typically contract for their crops months in advance. Depending on the crop and the size of the farms and businesses involved, these intermediaries might pick up produce from a farm in bulk and send it on to a canned goods company, or take it to a sorting facility where it gets packaged or bagged and sent to a buyer like a supermarket or restaurant. Sometimes, it gets packaged right in the field. If farmers unexpectedly have extra of something, they pick up the phone and talk to their distributor, who finds another buyer for it.

“Our food distribution system is very finely calibrated in the U.S., which is a good thing because we get fresh food quickly,” says John Mandyck, co-author of the book “Food Foolish.” “Disruption reveals the calibration.”

Farms also have backup plans, such as techniques to delay harvest for a few days or lining up access to spare trucks. It’s just that none of them applied this spring, when demand cratered at restaurants, schools, and other industrial buyers of food while at the same time spiking in grocery stores.

“For a strawberry farm, contingency was around hurricanes,” says Aaron LaMotte, vice president of produce at Sodexo SA, the food-services giant. “It wasn’t around a pandemic.”

Suddenly, farms that grow lemons destined to garnish restaurant-served cups of tea and glasses of water were scrambling to find new customers. Farms that grow extra-large onions—10 or 12 inches in diameter— that normally find their way into cafeteria onion rings found themselves out of luck with grocery stores, where picky consumers prefer something less supersized. Farms that ship milk in bulk containers to those same schools and other cafeterias lost their regular buyers. Ditto eggs. Parsley, in pre-pandemic times liberally sprinkled across millions of now abandoned buffet tables across the country, piled up unwanted.

Even if the product was the same—restaurant lemons match grocery store lemons—many distributors found they needed new packaging. Grocery stores might require one- pound or three-pound bags of lemons, or eggs in boxes of one dozen, or milk in cartons of a gallon or less—not on hand at those distributors who normally sell to big companies. Or the distributor had the packaging and a substitute buyer, but its sorting machines couldn’t handle the new measurements. 

Like many organizations, Full Harvest wanted to help divert the produce to food banks. But Moseley learned that dropping off a truckload or two of produce at a food bank isn’t always possible. They don’t have the refrigeration to store it. Sometimes, the smaller trucks that service their buildings—as opposed to the giant tractor trailers that take produce to, say, a soup factory—are too small to fit the giant pallets of produce that many industrial distributors work with.

That’s when she started talking to Eat Learn Play, World Central Kitchen, and later, Salesforce. The first program started in May, with more in June. They aim to keep pushing into more cities.

 “My hope is to scale it nationally,” says Ebony Beckwith, chief executive officer of the Salesforce Foundation. The group is working to add Los Angeles to its food-box roster later this year. “What if we can connect all farms like this?”

It was up to Full Harvest to find the farms with available surplus produce for sale. Its grower-relations staff hit the phones, asking existing partner farmers if they could offer any leads, and calling other farmers cold. That is how they tracked down Coke Farm, one of about a half dozen now working on various food-box projects with Full Harvest; Coke packed up ripe fruits and vegetables on its farm for an Oakland food-box program set up with World Central Kitchen. It worked so well that Full Harvest and World Central Kitchen just expanded the initiative to New York City, working with nearby local farms there. The goal is to deliver 48,000 boxes to food insecure families in New York by the first week of September.

Meanwhile, for a separate program, Eat Learn Play worked with the Oakland Unified School District to find families with school-age children in the city who could use the veggies. It hired 35 locals, mostly jobless due to the pandemic, to work in a warehouse sorting truckloads of farm goods into individual boxes.

The first boxes included squash, tomatoes and other vegetables. “Summer corn was a smash hit,” reports Eat, Learn, Play’s CEO Chris Helfrich. Kale, not so much, at least for the kids.

The 15-pound boxes of organic produce cost the funders $25 apiece, including transportation and logistics, compared with around $40 for a typical organic community-farm produce box. The goal is to keep driving the price down to a level where a low-income Oakland family could afford to buy it themselves.

Observers hope this project and others like it will outlast the pandemic.

“There’s really an opportunity to build a different supply chain, or a tributary to the supply web,” says Lauren Scott, chief marketing officer of the Produce Marketing Association. “Something that’s truly sustainable, that the food banks could count on and use.” Key to it, she says, is developing a system where farmers and distributors are paid fairly—and figuring it out now, not during the next wave of a pandemic or other crisis.

Some key steps would help solve the problems of excess food going to waste on farms in crisis rather than finding its way to hungry people. Leib of Harvard advocates for tailoring tax incentives for donated food so it is easier for farmers to claim deductions. She would also like to see a tax benefit, either for farmers or transportation companies, so they can get the food where needed.

“It’s not free to take food that is not going to be sold,” she says. “Someone needs to come get it.” She is talking with members of Congress to get such provisions written into law. A proposed piece of legislation called the Food Donation Improvement Act would help because it limits liability for those who donate safe food. She also welcomes changes that the government made as the pandemic struck hard in the spring, such as temporarily allowing eggs that were packaged for food service to be sold in grocery stores even without the mandated nutritional labels.

Food raised or grown and then wasted takes up a fifth of all cropland, and one-fifth of all fertilizer, a serious contributor to greenhouse gases. Wasted food uses around one-fifth of the space in all landfills. 

With a goal of shifting the agricultural legacy of coronavirus to cutting those grim statistics,  Moseley of Full Harvest calls for more steps akin to the plan the government announced in April. Its  $19 billion coronavirus-relief program for  farmers and ranchers included $3 billion to purchase food from U.S. producers so it could go to charitable organizations like food banks instead of getting dumped or plowed under.

“If there’s anything government money should be going towards, it is this: taking money and subsidizing the cost of food that would have gone to waste and feeding people,” she says.

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