California Families Are Hungry While a Third of Crops Rot in Fields

Row crops growing in California.

Maximina Molina Sanchez is worried about going hungry this winter. She depends on a food bank in Huron to feed her husband and two kids. But with most agricultural workers out of jobs during the winter, demand is bound to increase, so she worries there won’t be enough food to feed everyone who needs it.

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The Sanchez family is among the 22% of people in Fresno County who couldn’t afford the groceries they needed in the past year. Fresno ranks third in the country for food insecurity, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

At the same time, the county leads the nation in agricultural production. A new study from Santa Clara University revealed that a whopping one-third of the hand-picked crops grown in the state are left to rot in the field.

So why can’t this food get to the people who really need it? Food banks are addressing shortages on a piecemeal basis and startups are expanding sales of farmers’ surplus produce. But there is no solution in sight to bridge the food insecurity and crop overproduction that plague the Central Valley because it takes money and labor to harvest the surplus and haul it to food banks.

Todd Hirasuna, vice president of Sunnyside Packing Company in Selma, said he was not surprised by the study’s finding. The company regularly leaves a third of its produce in the field.

“When you lump the whole Valley together, it’s a pretty staggering number at the end of the day,” Hirasuna said.

Hunger in the Valley

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 10.6 % of households across the state were food insecure in 2018. In 2016, over a fifth of Fresno residents received food stamps and 10.6% of Californians. It’s unclear whether those are the same groups of people. However, according to the Food Research and Action Center, people on food stamps may still be food insecure because the aid doesn’t always cover the cost of the food they need. And many families with insufficient food have incomes higher than the threshold for food stamps.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley found that 27% of residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are at risk of hunger even though they live next to two of the most productive agricultural valleys in the country. The food bank raised the issue with food waste researchers at Santa Clara University, who in turn quantified the amount of surplus in those fields.

“We wondered whether there may be some opportunities to salvage the food left in the fields and direct it to people on food assistance,” said Greg Baker, executive director of the Center for Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SCU.

Examining 20 hand-harvested crops on 123 Central and Northern California fields in 2016 and 2017, the researchers found that 34% of edible produce never makes it off the farm. Loss rates varied widely among crops; cabbage, romaine lettuce and strawberries were among the most lost. (Researchers refer to leftover produce as “loss,” not “waste,” because unlike food that ends up in a landfill, it can feed livestock or fertilize the soil.)

Loss rates are likely constant throughout California, according to Baker, but machine-harvested produce experiences much lower levels because the equipment leaves little behind. Produce that can be canned or converted to other foodstuff such as raisins also has lower loss rates.

Baker found that farmers tend to overproduce to fulfill their contracts with buyers. They plant about a third more than they need in case of weather, pests, plant disease, labor availability, field stability and over- or under-sized crops. If after delivering, the price is too low, they leave the rest to rot.

This year, Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos harvested close to 85% of its cantaloupes because market demand was high, according to Cannon Michael, company president. However, last year his company left about 80% of its cantaloupes in the field because prices were too low to justify harvesting.

“Food waste is a big concern of ours,” Michael said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Lisa Johnson, a researcher at North Carolina State University who specializes in food loss and waste, found that in the Southeast, 40% of crops are lost. This is particularly concerning, she said, because the losses stack atop the 30% to 40% of food USDA estimates is wasted each year in stores and households.

‘Why not donate it to people in need?’

Sanchez has seen the loss first-hand. She was a picker until her son, now 9 months old, was born. Life has been difficult since her husband fell off a truck while he was packing lettuce and injured his back a few months ago.

Westside Family Preservation, a food bank in the roughly 7,000-person town of Huron, keeps most of the town’s agricultural workers from starving by supplying such staples as milk, corn flakes, pasta, rice, beans and canned fruits and vegetables. But the food bank regularly lacks the fresh produce grown in the Valley, which Sanchez said she needs to keep her sons healthy.

“Instead of throwing it away, why not donate it to people in need? The cold is coming, it’s going to rain, and these people, we are in need.”

But getting food out of the fields and into the households that need it is far costlier than simply growing it, Johnson explained. With limited budgets, food banks can’t offset the full cost of labor.

The Central California Food Bank serves about 280,000 families in the Valley, including Sanchez’s family. They share surplus and trade vegetables with over 200 food banks nationwide. But supplies often fall short.

“It’s feast to famine,” said Jaclyn Pack, food acquisitions manager at the food bank. “During the summer we’re very feast. I can’t keep our cold storage empty. And during the winter it’s very famine, where I’m constantly trying to figure out how to get product in.”

The food bank provides farms with cardboard boxes and picks them up, and the state gives farmers a tax credit worth 15% of the wholesale value. But Baker said many farmers don’t participate because they either didn’t know about the tax incentives or found the compensation too low. It made more sense to write off the crop as a loss than to donate it.

“It’s not their business,” Baker said. “They’re not running a charity along with their farm. They’re very happy to contribute but it can cost them too much money because they’re operating on slim margins as it is.”

Food banks have tried to get volunteers to glean the produce off the farms but it didn’t work. Frequently there wasn’t enough time to organize enough volunteers and gleaners take far longer and harvest much less than professional field workers.

Food left in fields likely to increase

Steve Linkhart, director of Farm to Family, at the California Association of Food Banks, is working on a statewide solution. He plans to hire the labor the farms already contract to get all the product off the field that could go to food banks. Funding, again, is the main roadblock.

“We have to find a way to offset the labor fees,” Linkhart said.

Growers and researchers say reducing the surplus calls for a seismic shift. They suggested more open communication within the supply chain. Baker said the retailers could shift the status quo by being more flexible on what they accept. That is, taking more produce that is off-size or has imperfections. That way, growers wouldn’t have to overplant.

Last year, investors spent over $125 million on startups looking to address food loss and waste. Imperfect Produce, for example, delivers otherwise unmarketable produce to homes, and recently began delivering boxes in Fresno, Merced and Modesto.

Full Harvest works with growers across California to deliver imperfect fruits and vegetables to food processors across the state and country.

“These are products that didn’t have any channel for incremental revenue,” said Christine Mosely, who runs Full Harvest. “It’s a win-win because the farms are happy to sell it because it would’ve been disced under.”

But a lot more needs to be done to curtail waste at a bigger scale, or get more of it to people in need, and no one has even a roadmap just yet.

Michael at Bowles suspects the problem will only worsen as produce prices stay low and labor costs rise.

“The potential for food to be left in the field is increasing because of the increased human cost,” he said. “That’s why a lot of the big folks are trying to move as much production out to Mexico and Central America, because the cost of labor is so much less.”

Manuela Tobias is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.


  1. Welcome to the California nightmare. FIVE MILLION ILLEGAL aliens that cost the state well over $23 BILLION dollars to medicate, incarcerate or try to educate.
    With the California sanctuary demo-rat mafia standing at the border yelling, “Y’all come, everything is “Free Free Free”. Yet, as the article states, families are going hungry, how does this reconcile???
    Fewer that 1 MILLION “agricultural” workers are needed on an annual basis to pick crops that can’t be mechanically harvested; or with an endless supply of ILLEGAL alien labor, there is no incentive to mechanize.
    Ironically, this is EXACTLY what Cesar Chavez was saying. (The example the demo-rats trot out as a Latino success story as he was head of the UFW) With an endless supply of ILLEGAL labor willing to work for substandard wages, or under the table, he couldn’t get a “living” wage for his LEGAL workers.
    Instead of true leadership in Sacramento, you have corruption like the city of san fransicko paying 6 men $72 THOUSAND per year to clean the human feces left behind by the way too many homeless.

  2. “Baker said the retailers could shift the status quo by being more flexible on what they accept. That is, taking more produce that is off-size or has imperfections” Hey! Go live and shop in another country and see how real life is. They’ll slap your hand if you “cherry pick” Consumers need to be educated. I shop at a small market for fruit and veggies. Low prices, not unionized and very friendly-not stressed. neighborhood.

  3. I’m having a little trouble feeling sorry for this piece. If I get this right the problem here is that two illegals and their children want more free stuff because they WORRY that they won’t get as much since there are so many more illegals coming here ? Not to be Scrooge here but this is Bull Shiiiitttt.
    From the sword of——–
    How many working CITIZENS WORRY about not having enough to eat after they pay crushing taxes as well a huge PG&E bills that continue to sky rocket .Never mind us, the citizens , worry about illegals ” worrying ” about they will get more free stuff . One more thing is , NOTHING IS FREE . The GOVERNMENT does not have money of it’s own and every penny they piss away and Award magnanimously does not belong to them.

  4. The CA Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation had 41 conservation camps around the state, each with 80 or more inmates. Most of their inmates are on firefighting crews to augment CALFIRE during fire season but during other times of the year, the crews can be “rented” by organizations or government agencies for $225 a day for various projects. It might take some law or regulation changes but that surely would be an inexpensive resource for labor to glean fields during the off-season. Unfortunately most of the crops are harvested during the fire season and gleaning would have to take place shortly after the harvest..

  5. Boris Badenov says

    Allow me to give you nightmares, courtesy of the UN and their Adgenda 21, Makes Kommieforniastan look sane or the idiots like Newsom are in on it, your option.

  6. Never let a crisis go to waste. In short time a leftist legislator will forward
    the idea that the state needs to control food production in the name of
    equality,fairness and,safety. The same ploy they use for energy. Very
    Stalin like and it will end the same. California is a expanding balloon and will burst… not if but, when.

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