Like many countries, Belgium is fighting its own coronavirus outbreak, with 47,334 confirmed cases. And like many other countries, that’s led to some unexpected economic problems that need to be sorted out. Namely, what to do with a huge bumper crop of potatoes.
Pommes frites are a staple of Belgian culture, so much so that the government petitioned UNESCO to officially name the fry as an icon of Belgian cultural heritage (culinary historians dispute this). But as restaurants close or limit service and Belgians sit at home, there’s been a sharp drop in demand for frozen potatoes, which accounts for 75 percent of Belgium’s potato processing. That’s according to Romain Cools, secretary general of Belgian potato industry group Belgapom, who spoke to CNBC. Cools said that the drop in demand has led to a massive inventory build up, straining the industry’s freezer capacity. As a result, Belgapom has a simple, straightforward request for Belgian citizens to help: eat French fries. Twice a week. At least.
As Cools explains, “We’re working with supermarkets to see whether we can launch a campaign asking Belgians to do something for the sector by eating fries—especially frozen fries—twice a week during the coronavirus crisis. What we are trying to do is to avoid food waste, because every lost potato is a loss.”
A fry binge may also be a good way to cope with the stress of lockdown—unless this ends up being forever—but Belgapom isn’t just asking consumers to change their behavior. Cools tells CNBC that group has “asked farmers not to plant that many potatoes for the next season because we believe this season will take some extra months away from next year by postponing processing.”
Belgium’s frozen fry glut is a scale example of a massive problem American farmers are facing. With schools closed and restaurants either shut down or scaling back to just takeout, farmers are left with a huge amount of un-bought product. According to the New York Times, with nothing else to do with the excess, dairy farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk into manure pounds, Florida growers are mulching up rows of cabbage and beans back into the soil, and just one egg producers is smashing 750,000 chicken eggs every week.
In a sad irony, U.S. food banks are overwhelmed with demand as the country faces monumental surges in unemployment. Some are millions of dollars over budget and seriously considering rationing food, even while milk and eggs are getting tossed down the drain. While some farmers are donating what they can, food banks only have so much space for perishable goods, and harvesting, transportation, and prepping costs are a huge logistical hurtle. Some U.S. farmers are finding solutions outside of the traditional economy, like Cranney Farms in Idaho, for example. Rather than turn their six months-worth of harvest to mulch, the company has instead decided to just give away 2 million pounds of potatoes. So for people in driving distance of Boise, French fries are still on the menu.
Many of the measures of the coronavirus age, even for those in more fortunate situations, can feel surprisingly difficult: restraining yourself from touching your face, not hugging another soul, and cancelling important life markers, like funerals and weddings. But as far as quarantine practices go, twice-weekly fry binges sound relatively pain-free.