In ordinary times, it’s not a problem that many restaurants, coffee shops, and caterers prefer to buy milk in big, 2½-gallon containers specially designed for their dispensers. There are roughly 200 dairy farms in Massachusetts, and some of them have tailored their business to the needs of those large institutional customers.
But now that that market has collapsed almost overnight because of the coronavirus outbreak, what to do with all the fresh milk produced at those Massachusetts farms has become a microcosm of the huge logistical challenge facing American farmers, who are struggling to find ways to sell their products to stay in business, avoid waste, and feed the country. Farmers have been forced to plow over crops and smash eggs, even though there are still plenty of people who want to eat them, because the systems for packaging and moving foods have not caught up with the sudden shift in where people are eating and how they get their food.
In the case of dairy, consumers want milk in half-gallon or quart jugs for their home fridges, but retooling production takes time — and there’s no way to switch off the cows, which need to be milked twice a day.
“There are a few dairy farmers that have had to dump milk,” said Mark Amato, the president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. “It seems very incongruous because we also hear stories that grocery stores either don’t have inventory or are limiting people on how much milk they can buy.”
The near-term disruption calls for government action to connect food banks, which face a huge spike in demand from families in need, with food stranded at farms because restaurants and institutional buyers have closed. In the longer term, with the economy in a tailspin and millions of Americans losing their jobs, expanding the food-stamp program would be the best way to ensure that the hungry have food and that farmers have a market for their products.
In Massachusetts, dairy farmers have borne the brunt of the disruption so far because the state’s other agricultural products, like apples and cranberries, aren’t in season. But Amato worries that if the shutdown persists into June, when you-pick-them farms usually start selling strawberries, more farmers will suffer and more fresh food will go to waste.
At the federal level, the National Farm Bureau Federation and Feeding America, an association of food banks, have recommended creating a voucher program through the United States Department of Agriculture as a short-term measure to connect products stranded at farms with food banks. It would work by allotting vouchers to food banks that they could use to purchase food at farms, freeing up the food banks’ cash to pay for other logistical costs like packaging and transportation. The groups believe that the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, already has the authority and that the plan could be instituted quickly.
“The images people are seeing of farmers plowing over crops or pouring out milk, and at the same time food banks with miles-long lines of cars — they don’t make sense to people. We’re trying to figure out how to connect those dots," said Kate Leone, senior vice president of Feeding America.
Massachusetts, with its comparatively tiny agricultural sector and short harvest window, can help farmers by assuring them that if they go ahead and plant crops this year, they’ll have a market. Catherine D’Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said the organization has offered to contract for crops in advance. Amato, of the state farm bureau, says another way for the state to help would be to extend the essential-business designation — which now covers supermarkets, farm stands, and farmers markets — to you-pick-them farms.
Food banks are a vital safety net right now, but the long-term solution to feeding the hungry and helping farmers would be to expand the time-proven food-stamp program, officially known as SNAP. “One of the things we know is that charity can’t do it by themselves,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, which is pushing for a 15 percent increase in the maximum food-stamp benefit.
Food stamps have spillover economic benefits, and not just for farmers. Stores benefit, and so do state governments, which get more sales tax revenue when low-income people are able to spend more money on taxed products because food stamps cover more of their untaxed groceries.
There are also ways to enhance the contribution food stamps can make to economic recovery. For instance, in California, certain restaurants can accept SNAP for prepared food for seniors, the homeless, and people with disabilities. Considering the dire straits of the restaurant industry, allowing all SNAP recipients to temporarily use their benefits for prepared food might be worth trying nationally, as a coalition of restaurant groups and anti-hunger advocates have requested. Using existing supply chains to restaurants would also reduce the need to improvise new ones to food banks.
With enormous numbers of Americans suddenly eating every meal at home, huge disruptions to the food system were inevitable. With unemployment rising, far too many are going hungry. But by expanding food stamps, and taking stronger steps to connect surplus food with food banks, the government can cushion the blow and help farmers and needy Americans endure the tough times ahead.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.