Even though grocery shelves may be empty during the coronavirus pandemic, the problem lies not with supplies but with the distribution chain, food experts say. (Flickr image)

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There are reasons farmers are plowing crops back into the fields and dumping milk down the drain, while food banks are desperate for donations and grocery stores are suffering shortages of some kinds of food — sometimes including milk and cheese.

It’s largely a function of how the United States’ food distribution system works, and the vagaries of legal requirements for food packaging, labeling, storage and shipment.

Changing the processes and retooling processing plants to get food to who needs it, Jamie Johansson said, will take time — at 12 to 18 months, maybe longer than it will take for the coronavirus pandemic to ease up.

“Hopefully, the transportation and the distribution is catching up,” said Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau. “You may see a bare (store) shelf, but the fields certainly aren’t bare.”

Johansson was one of several participants in a recent “coronavirus telephone town hall” about pandemic-related disruptions in the food chain and resulting social disruptions, convened last week by state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda.

The closures of restaurants and, especially, schools related to the coronavirus pandemic created an oversupply of milk, Johansson said. The problem, he said, is that milk once destined for schools isn’t packaged for general consumer use. It would take 16 typical school milk cartons to equal a gallon as typically bought at a store.

Problems for food banks

He talked about the shortages at food banks, which are under dire pressure from communities experiencing sharp job losses because of the pandemic.

While food banks usually deal well with breaking down bulk food packages, he said, most food banks need more cold storage space to handle shipments of perishables, including milk. Complicating food banks’ mission, Johansson said, is a shortage of volunteers, many of whom are sheltering in place.

This situation could be eased by a state and federal initiative announced Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom to connect farmers and ranchers with excess produce to food banks around the state.

With half of all of California’s restaurants shut down during the pandemic, and the other half doing takeout and delivery only, a huge market for state food producers has shrunk significantly, in another blow to the food chain.

“Half of what we produce goes to food service, and to restaurants,” Johansson said. “A lot of us lost our markets overnight.”

Matt Sutton, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Restaurant Association, said takeout and delivery is paying some bills; others have switched to new market niches, like grocery delivery or ready-to-go boxed lunches.

Estella Cisneros, with California Rural Legal Assistance’s Agricultural Worker Program, said the coronavirus is endangering farm workers, which could in turn affect the availability of some kinds of food.

Their jobs often don’t lend themselves to social distancing, she said, and access to personal protective equipment has ranged from spotty to nonexistent.

“There’s a lot of fear in the farmworker community … about insufficient protection, and the ability to perform their jobs safely,” Cisneros said. She also said farmworkers are often afraid to call in sick.

Johansson acknowledged the Farm Bureau and others have been scrambling to find PPE for farmworkers, but stressed farmworkers are generally told to stay home if they’re sick.

Distribution obstacles

The shortages of fresh produce that have surfaced in stores, Johansson said, have sometimes been more a function of transport problems than a lack of product. A coronavirus outbreak in mid-April among employees at the Safeway distribution center near Tracy resulted in that center’s temporary closure, and bare produce shelves in regional Safeway stores for several days.

Growers who sell their fruits and vegetables at farmers markets generally have had plenty to offer, said Ben Palazzolo, director of marketing for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, which manages several Bay Area farmers markets. But there have been adjustments there, too, especially when several cities were uncomfortable about the markets in the early days of the pandemic.

And once the markets returned to many of their cities after being deemed “essential,” they had to make some changes, Palazzolo said. Vendors now have to distance from one another, sellers do much of the gathering of the produce for customers, setting up designated waiting places for customers, vendors wear gloves and masks, and hand sanitizer is everywhere.

“It’s been a challenge, kind of a scramble each week to meet new requirements,” Palazzolo said. “But we’ve seen increased business at some markets because people have been cooking at home more.”

Sutton with the California Restaurant Association said that when restaurants are first allowed to reopen, they won’t look quite like they did pre-pandemic.

“We do know that social distancing, and face coverings, and employee health screenings, are going to be the norm for a little while,” he said.