Why the Government Is Buying $40M Worth of Pistachios

The tree nuts and a record-setting purchase of surplus seafood are headed to America's food banks.

In a perfect world, the amount of food that gets produced is the amount of food people need to eat. But as we know, that's not always the case. Sometimes people, say, get obsessed with Buffalo wings and suddenly were hit will a chicken wing shortage. Other times, escargot sales plummet and farmers are stuck with too many snails. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this uncertainty, but thankfully for American farmers, the USDA has a system in place to deal with it.

Even before the pandemic, when farmers had surpluses, the USDA would often purchase this excess food to stock America's food banks. (For instance, in 2016, the USDA bought $20 million in cheese.) But since the COVID-19 outbreak, supply chains have been increasingly out of balance—and at the same time, the economic devastation has left more Americans hungry. As a result, the USDA has been stepping up its effort to simultaneously help food producers and those in need by purchasing from one and giving to the other.

This time last year, the Trump administration announced an eye-popping purchase of $470 million in surplus food products. And last week, the Biden administration made its own headline-worthy announcement: The USDA is purchasing $159.4 million in domestically produced seafood, fruits, legumes, and nuts—and the $70.9 million to be spent on seafood is being billed as the government's largest purchase of this kind ever.

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"The impacts of COVID-19 reverberated from our farms to our oceans," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the announcement. "U.S. fisheries and the American seafood industry were dealt a heavy blow. Today, USDA is pleased to make the largest single seafood purchase in the Department's history. These healthy, nutritious food purchases will benefit food banks and non-profits helping those struggling with food hardship as the Biden Administration works to get the economy back on track for American families."

The seafood buy included $20 million in Alaska Pollock, $25 million in Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic wild-caught shrimp, $4 million in Pacific pink shrimp, $4 million in Pacific rockfish fillets, $9 million in Pacific whiting fillets, and $8.9 million in Sockeye salmon.

But though seafood got the big Vilsack shout out, the single largest purchase actually came in the nut department: $40 million in pistachios. And whereas a COVID-19-related seafood surplus might make sense since seafood is largely sold in restaurants, the massive pistachio purchase may come as more of a surprise.

So why so many pistachios? Modern Farmer looked into the question and came up with an interesting answer. Pistachio production has been booming. Reportedly, the past two years have set records for California's largest pistachio crops, and the USDA found earlier this year that overall pistachio production was up 42 percent over the previous year. However, the site also states that pistachios have become more popular in part due to strong export opportunities—and as we know, the global pandemic has caused havoc with international shipping. So though the USDA wouldn't provide Modern Farmer with an official explanation for their pistachio purchase, the dots would seem easy to connect: Record production coupled with difficulty in shipping abroad would assumedly mean lots more pistachios for America's food banks.

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