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Though people have been buying up groceries at almost apocalyptic rates, mountains of unsold vegetables in Florida – squash, zucchini, tomatoes – were left to rot due to restaurant closures.
“Thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables grown in Florida are being plowed over or left to rot because farmers can’t sell to restaurants, theme parks or schools nationwide that have closed because of the coronavirus,” reports The Associated Press. “Other states are having the same issues — agriculture officials say leafy greens in California are being hit especially hard, and dairy farmers in Vermont and Wisconsin say they have had to dump a surplus of milk intended for restaurants.”
The high supply and low demand has created a price drop as well. At a packing plant in Florida, 25-pound boxes of Roma tomatoes are now going for just $5 apiece. Tony DiMare, tomato grower, said the situation is a catastrophe and predicted losses in the millions.
“This is a catastrophe,” said DiMare. “We haven’t even started to calculate it. It’s going to be in the millions of dollars. Losses mount every day.”
Though farmers have tried donating the surplus vegetables to food banks, the charities are only able to take in so much at a single time, leaving many already full. Selling that same produce to grocery stores is an equally difficult task, given that farms have already been contracted. As much as 80% of tomatoes grown in Florida are sold to restaurants and theme parks.
“We gave 400,000 pounds of tomatoes to our local food banks,” DiMare said. “A million more pounds will have to be donated if we can get the food banks to take it. We can’t even give our product away, and we’re allowing imports to come in here.”
The recent stimulus package passed by Congress will provide $9.5 billion in aid to struggling farmers, which will provide some relief to the loss of revenue. As for the waste of food, as many as 20 federal lawmakers from Florida, as well as state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, have sent letters to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “to include Florida farmers in federal food purchase and distribution programs so the surplus crops can help feed the hungry and food insecure,” continued AP.
Speaking on “America’s Newsroom,” Western Growers President and CEO David Puglia said that farmers will need federal relief until restaurants and theme parks reopen. Even then, there is no telling when restaurants will be able to operate at the same level again.
“The question is when will the economy reopen and how quickly will it reopen and how many of those restaurants are going to come back?” said Puglia. “Farmers have to make planting decisions in California right now to be able to harvest crops in the summer and in the fall that will supply our restaurants and our universities and our schools and our grocery stores.”
“We really need the administration to ensure that fresh produce industry players, the farmers and the farmworkers and the people who are in that food supply chain, are bridged during this period of time to stay afloat,” he later added.