Between 20 and 30 percent of the food we grow on US farms never makes it out of the field or past the farmgate. While these crops get tilled back into soil, food banks across the country struggle to meet demand for those in need. And that’s in business-as-usual circumstances. Right now, food banks are seeing more than 100 percent increase in demand in many places as millions face furlough and unemployment. While both farmers and food banks may be aware of this disconnect, there are several roadblocks in the system we have yet to overcome, including the technology to help farmers find access to markets and availability of affordable, skilled workers to harvest surplus food.
The current US agricultural labor supply is declining as workers age. Farm laborers are not being backfilled by the next generation and are becoming more expensive as a result. This leads growers to harvest only their best product to maximize financial returns. In the best of times, the lack of cost-effective labor, which leads to loss of food and waste of invested resources, is a major concern for people and the environment.
During the current COVID-19 crisis, the fundamental challenges in the labor system are being amplified; farmworkers are at a greater risk of being infected because of crowded conditions in which they typically live, work and travel, and a lack of access to healthcare. The flow of migrant labor is slowing as embassies close and fewer visas are made available. Fixing an already-chronic shortage of labor and closing gaps in our food system to utilize as much surplus as possible is essential to our nation’s food security.
In the short term, volunteers, innovative college students, and benefactors are helping to fill this gap. But for the long term, we need a sustainable solution to get more surplus food to those who need it in a safe, economically viable way. This is something WWF has been exploring for several years as part of our No Food Left Behind project.
The latest report in our series explores tapping into the gig economy to reach a domestic workforce who, while not lifetime agricultural workers, are willing and able to harvest food in the right conditions.
Interest in this work may have grown significantly since our initial research. For example, since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the UK, who has similarly seen both a massive rise in unemployment and a huge shortage of migrant farm labor, has reported that more than 30,000 people applied for farming jobs in just the first few weeks of the crisis. Most were UK citizens and only a third had a background in farming. No studies have yet been done to assess this capacity or interest in the US, though it’s an area we are hoping to explore.
Pre-pandemic, we underwent an iterative human-centered design process, envisioning this as a digital platform called Second Helping. It would streamline connections between farmers, foodbanks, and workers, matching a grower’s surplus product with a food bank’s demand. It would then source independent, part-time, temporary labor to harvest the surplus.
In Fall 2019 we put the idea to the test on a fresh tomato farm in the central valley of California. After six weeks of recruitment, 54 people applied, 38 were invited to work, 18 accepted, and six showed up to work on the farm. Despite the attrition, the group harvested 2,280 pounds of tomatoes in two hours. Participants were paid per pound of tomatoes picked, making $20-$40 an hour, more than minimum wage.
Workers reported that the wage was not the only benefit. Nearly all held other jobs and appreciated the early morning session to free up the rest of the day for additional work or family time. The rural location was a bonus for those who had relocated due to the high cost of living in urban areas. A third of participants were previously incarcerated and appreciated the opportunity to pick up temporary work without a background check.
While the pilot demonstrated clear potential, we also found many legal, political, and practical challenges that must be examined in further phases before this model could be implemented at scale. These include attrition rates and liability concerns for farmers—such as risk of worker injury, enforcement of labor rights, and training needs for different crops.
While it will take time to distill this into a business-ready app, our initial research shows worker interest, demand from farmers for alternative markets, and food bank need has never been clearer. If we were to run this prototype test in today’s labor market, our results could be dramatically different, considering a surge of newly unemployed, health risks, and shelter-in-place orders. However, this project and others like it, could be the start of a long-term solution to bridge a gap and decrease post-harvest loss rates, helping to create a more resilient food systems for the benefit of people and nature.
To learn more about our work in on-farm food loss, visit NoFoodLeftBehind.farm.