USDA let millions of pounds of food rot while food-bank demand soared

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The precipitous drop in demand left many growers with no choice but to trash excess food or leave it in the fields because the cost of picking, packing and storing the crops would only put them further in the hole. Some with more resources in hand took on the cost of harvesting and donating the food themselves, but the gut-wrenching reality is that crops are being abandoned on an unprecedented scale.

A handful of states, including Florida and California, set up online clearinghouses to try to match up excess food with need in their area, but the high volumes of surplus produce often can’t be absorbed by local food banks alone, making national distribution important for making even a dent in the waste.

Paul Allen, co-owner of RC Hatton Farms, is currently disking hundreds of acres of cabbage — a process that grinds crops into the soil — because there’s simply no market for it. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the cabbage he grows is typically used for coleslaw at restaurant chains like KFC. Allen estimates he’s left about 8 million pounds of cabbage and 4.5 million pounds of green beans in the fields.

“We’ve been devastated,” Allen said. His company has already donated hundreds of thousands of pounds of vegetables to food banks. The company also sent containers of produce to the Bahamas and paid for the cost of harvesting to make it all happen.

Now, Allen says, he must decide how many of his crops are better left unpicked, not knowing when much of his customer base will be able to reopen for business. “Do I keep taking on more losses?” he said, noting that vegetable growers have already spent several thousands of dollars per acre before harvest. “But if I stop growing food for our country, that’s a bigger problem yet.”

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