Unemployment figures have surged across the world due to the adverse effects Covid-19 has had on the global economy. Recent data suggests that the total number of unemployment claims during the current recession in the United States just crossed a staggering 44 million.
The struggle to pay for basic needs like rent and food continues for those who have been laid off amid the pandemic. A hunger relief organization called Feeding America, which has at least 200 food banks all over the country, reported a 40% increase in demand across its affiliate food banks in April. While millions of Americans are resorting to visiting food banks for their next meal of the day, reports of surplus produce and an abundance of harvestable crops being discarded has been extremely distressing for some, and has of course raised the question of why what would be ‘extra food’ cannot be allocated to those in need. The process however is not as simple as it may seem.
The concept of food ‘wastage’ in what we can now refer to as the ‘pre coronavirus’ age, was already a growing concern with high averages of about 30-40% of total food produced going completely unconsumed, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. We see a significant part of this unfold in grocery stores where many food items do not survive the test of time, meat being right at the top of the list, followed by the food items in the produce department, ultimately leading to a loss of sales due to spoilage. With closures all across the food industry, this as well as other kind of wastage has increased across the board.
The supply chain at every level of the food industry has been hit with its own share of complex problems during the pandemic. Given the time sensitivity of their ‘product life’, many farmers were tasked with the burden of a massive surplus of produce – results of months of harvesting and growing crops. Restaurants, schools and other organizations that serve as continued customers and buyers literally shutting down over night due to nation and state wide lockdowns has had, and continues to have a depreciating impact on many food suppliers and farmers, and has also resulted in some going completely out of business.
In order to deal with the new market reality many organizations have jumped in to systemize and reroute this surplus produce; some that are nonprofits from the agriculture industry and many that are primarily volunteer organizations that come to the table with no prior experience in the field. These organizations have adopted new technologies to develop new sales avenues, and in some cases have even had to build a completely new supply chain in a time sensitive manner to ensure that as many perishable goods as possible are saved first. Their main strategy is to create visibility through a bigger outreach for farmers to connect primarily with food banks as well as other food manufacturing companies.
Smaller local farms have not necessarily always had the required capital to adopt support software for logistics and supply chain management – a huge part of seamlessly connecting and delivering goods to grocery stores. There are a few apps and platforms which have been in the business of helping connect local farmers to bigger buyers such as grocery stores or larger institutions like schools by simplifying the process and digitizing availability flows. One such company, Forager, reportedly noticed an increase of almost 180% from buyers ever since March of this year, in what has been an obvious effort to combat the current dominant problem of surplus food wastage. This led to a grant from ReFED, an organization working to cut down food waste in the country. ReFED has a COVD-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund, which administers grants particularly focused on bridging the food loss gap, involving farms, logistics, distribution as well as last-mile delivery. A part of Forager’s grant application was to continue to materialize its pilot partnership program with ‘gleaning organizations’ – these are usually volunteer organizations that collect leftover food from farms after harvest season to donate to food banks, which will of course be of great use under the current circumstances.
Another viable option has been seen through the effort to reroute surplus produce to food manufacturing companies that deal with consumer packaged goods. A company in San Francisco, Full Harvest provides a digital market place that allows farms to position and sell their surplus produce through an online platform. Buyers are usually companies that deal with press juices, baby food, pet food as well as soup companies. Post COVID-19, Full Harvest has successfully been using their online marketplace to create connections for suppliers with surplus produce to companies that produce and manufacture consumer packaged goods.
Traceability solutions like Nazar’s Wide Angle Visibility platform can help firms better deal with demand side shocks by helping them optimize their supply chains and keep a track of their produce in real time using digital twin technology.
As the pandemic continues to highlight many existing problems in different industries, it is a hopeful start to see the use of technology overcome labor and logistics issues and significantly help reduce food waste across the country.