In the News: Food Banks Are Drowning in Milk China Won't Buy

Amid a new round of tariffs, retracted tariffs, farmer payments for damages from tariffs, The New Food Economy has a headline this week on milk surpluses and food banks Food Banks Are Drowning in Milk China Won't Buy.

The central problem is that part of the U.S. bailout for farmers hurt by tariffs has been to purchase food, and then drop that food into the food banking system (which distributes to food shelves and food pantries). That’s good because it’s food donations. That’s a problem for the system because it’s episodic, no one is going to scale up for something that happens once or twice during a trade war, and milk is particularly difficult because it arrives in high volumes and is highly perishable.

This is not the first time the challenge charitable milk donations has come up. NPR ran a story in February and, as this Indicator podcast points out, it was even once a plot line for the Wonder Woman comics. This winter, Local Banquet ran its own story on dairy donations in Vermont that placed these bailout purchases in the broader context of how we find a home for all the milk we produce.

Trouble in the land of dairy donations is a subplot in the larger story of dairy pricing and market signals that lead to a glut of milk with depressed prices. It’s also in part a portrait of cultural tastes, where Americans reject shelf stable milk options that are much more common in other parts of the world as inferior (although Wisconsin just invested in research that may change that). This most recent experience with China also suggests some of the many potential bumps in the road for using export markets as a strategy to head off any need for domestic supply management.

Perhaps the most important lesson to look for in these trade war stories is the ongoing paradox of American food - we produce extravagant surpluses of many food items, yet we fail to produce and deliver a balanced, nutritious diet to our own citizens. Worse, we fail not only those people who need food assistance, but also the farmers across the country who might provide the food for that assistance. And knee jerk policy decisions can amplify the problem manyfold.