How COVID-19 Has Affected Food Waste – and How the Food System Has Responded

February 1, 2021

COVID-19 has upended our food system, and its effects have been felt across the entire supply chain. While we don’t have a complete picture yet, initial estimates – along with anecdotal evidence – suggest that the early days of the pandemic saw large increases in the amount of food going to waste. The sudden closures of restaurants and other foodservice businesses, along with increased demand at the retail level, resulted in extensive difficulties for growers and producers. Suddenly, there were huge quantities of produce and other perishable goods with nowhere to go, as products meant for wholesale foodservice distribution could not easily be repurposed to grocery due to packaging limitations, distribution challenges, and lack of existing sales relationships.

According to the Dairy Farmers of America, 3.7 million gallons of milk were dumped daily until June 2020, amounting to 5% of the country’s milk supply. The Dairy Farmers of America and the International Dairy Association also reported that more than 107,000 unhatched eggs were destroyed daily until June 2020. And the U.S. National Pork Producers Council estimated that reduced plant capacities resulted in the euthanization of more than 10 million market hogs – more than 1.2 billion pounds of retail cuts of meat.

The meatpacking and food processing sectors were hit especially hard with COVID-19 outbreaks and have had continuously high disruption levels since. Currently, facilities that pack meat require people to work in close quarters, which accelerated the transmission of COVID-19 and led to plant closures and slow output. At one point in 2020, there had been a reduction of capacity utilization at beef and pork processing plants by more than 30%, which was expected to continue through winter 2021, as COVID-19 cases spiked in conjunction with flu season. 

Rapidly changing customer patterns when the pandemic first struck made it difficult for retailers to accurately order the correct amounts of stock, resulting in empty shelves for some products and overages on others. Now that demand surges have leveled off, retailers are operating at a more typical level. Foodservice businesses remain among the hardest hit, as mandated lockdowns and ongoing customer apprehension over safety have led to huge decreases in business, meaning no outlet for the many products – such as gourmet seafood – that tend to be used more by restaurants than in homes.

Food security and recovery organizations on the front lines quickly adapted to this new reality, implementing new initiatives to rescue healthy food in danger of going to waste and delivering it to the increasing number of people struggling with food insecurity – all while evolving their own operations to ensure the safety of their employees and the people they serve.

At the consumer and household level, COVID-19 might actually be leading to a decrease in food waste. Typically, consumers collectively generate the most food waste each year, and 2020 initially seemed to be no different, as pandemic-related stockpiling and more home cooking increased the amount of waste. But many consumers are learning new planning and cooking skills and may have adapted to their new reality – according to the Food Industry Association, 36% of U.S. grocery shoppers surveyed felt that they have become better at avoiding food waste during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 51% expected they will have become better at it in the future. Still, 37% of consumers reported buying more groceries each time they went shopping, compared to before the pandemic – so the risk of food going to waste is still there.

Learn about ReFED’s response to COVID-19, including our COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund and “Better Together” webinar series, here.

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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