Why is it so hard for farmers to donate their crops?
Because there aren’t enough roadblocks to getting hungry people healthy food, here’s another one. And it’s something that could be fixed with a small dollop of legalese (ideally right on top of the stimulus package). Someone at Bread for the City, which runs the biggest D.C. food pantry, pointed me to a post on their blog that sets up the problem thusly:
[L]iterally tons of fresh fruits and vegetables will be grown this year that will never make it to market for one reason or another. (For instance, major supermarkets turn away curvy cucumbers since they don’t stack well …) In a country where about half of all food grown is wasted, the gap between the field and the market is where a shockingly large amount of the loss occurs.
Their goal is to get this “wasted” food to the people who need it. Naturally, it’s not easy (although nothing about helping the poor ever is). But it’s not finding the produce that’s the problem — many farmers are more than happy to participate. It’s getting it: the food pantries have to organize teams of volunteers to harvest, pack, and transport the produce themselves. Why not just have the farmers do it for them? Sometimes they do, of course. But for many farmers already on the edge financially, throwing in labor and fuel as part of the deal just isn’t possible. The tax-savvy among you will no doubt object — what about the write-off?
Well, there isn’t any. Not much of one, anyway. As it’s been explained to me (and I don’t presume to fully understand the intricasies of the tax code as it affects farmers), farmers can’t deduct the market value of their “wasted” crop. After all, their buyers have determined that the produce in question has a value of zero (since they won’t pay for it).
But without an ability to get some kind of favorable tax treatment as a means to recoup part of the costs, they can’t afford to invest the labor and fuel required. As a result, perfectly good food gets plowed under because, like vegetables, volunteers don’t grow on trees. Relying on the kindness of strangers is typically what we expect poor people in this country to do. But, really, this one is so easy — we’re not talking about fixing the school lunch program. Big Ag doesn’t even have to know it’s happening. This is just about making it easier for local farmers to donate vegetables they can’t otherwise sell. What could possibly be so hard? Talk about a win-win.