Avocado surplus results in giveaway of 380,000 fruits in Philadelphia

Photo for The Washington Post by Rachel Wisniewski
Evan Ehlers, founder of nonprofit Sharing Excess, poses for a photo in FDR Park in Philadelphia on Oct. 19, 2022. Supply chain issues have caused a massive surplus of the fruit coming in from South America.

Avocados, the fruit known as “green gold” because of their ability to generate billions of dollars for producers, are apparently so abundant right now that South American farmers are just giving them away. A nonprofit group in Philadelphia passed out hundreds of thousands of avocados on Wednesday to everyone who drove up in a car at FDR Park and asked for a case.

The avocados came from producers in South American, most likely Peru, said Evan Ehlers, founder and executive director of Sharing Excess, a Philly-based group that combats waste by delivering surplus foods to those people and organizations that need it most. The produce was initially secured by Farmlink Project, a California-based nonprofit group that was able to get its hands on about five truckloads of avocados that otherwise would have gone to waste. The group turned the fruit over to Sharing Excess to distribute, Ehlers said.

The giveaway underscores the volatility of this year’s avocado market, in which America’s voracious appetite for the fruit, combined with Mexico’s drop in production, led to vastly higher prices and an influx of avocados from other countries, including Peru. When the market began to stabilize in July and August, and Mexico’s yields increased again, analysts suggested the market may have become inundated with unwanted avocados. But that’s just speculation.

“We’re able to handle this amount, and, you know, we’ve been moving these all week. It started to just get to a point where we saturating the organizations that we normally distribute to, and we realized that we needed to probably do a large distribution on our own,” said Ehlers during a phone call from Philadelphia, where he had spent part of the morning operating a forklift.

In a matter of hours, Sharing Excess passed out 230,000 avocados on Wednesday to everyone who showed up at the park, regardless of need. Part of the group’s mission, Ehlers said, is to destigmatize hunger, so the organization doesn’t require people to produce evidence of need. Earlier in the week, Ehlers added, Sharing Excess had donated 150,000 avocados to Philadelphia area food banks. The group plans to hand out more avocados Thursday.

Early in the summer, the price of midsize Mexican avocados peaked at $87 per case, an increase of 180 percent over the previous year, said David Magaña, a senior fruits and vegetables analyst with RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness in Fresno, Calif. About 90 percent of avocados imported into the United States come from Mexico, according to a RaboResearch report forwarded by Magaña.

As avocado prices climbed higher in the first months of the year, restaurants and chefs were forced to respond. Chipotle raised its menu prices. One craft condiment company in Los Angeles had to alter its recipe for avocado salsa to adapt to the higher prices.

“The prices of avocado are so high that it’s now a luxury for a customer to ask for one avocado in a daily meal,” Lazaro González, a chef in Toluca, Mexico, told Business Insider this summer.

But since then, avocado prices have normalized. A case of 48 midsize Mexican avocados now sells for about $30, down about 25 percent from a year ago, Magaña said. So what accounts for the wild fluctuations within just a few months?

A number of factors contributed to higher prices in the first half of 2022, Magaña said. But one major factor was, basically, the nature of avocado production itself: The trees are alternate bearing, meaning that some years they simply produce fewer fruits. Last season was one of those years, Magaña said. For the first six months of 2022, he said, avocado shipments from Mexico to the United States were down 25 percent from the previous year, though Magaña notes that 2021 was an exceptionally fruitful year for growers in Michoacán, where most of Mexico’s avocados are grown.

But there were other impacts, too. In February, the U.S. Agriculture Department banned all imports from Michoacán after a U.S. inspector was reportedly threatened in Mexico. The ban lasted just a week, but it was followed two months later with a new policy in Texas that required secondary inspections of all commercial trucks and other vehicles entering the state. The inspections led to miles-long lines at U.S.-Mexico border crossing and forced some operators to destroy produce destined for American markets.

“So, all that combined with an off year,” Magaña said, “we had very high prices.”

The good news, Magaña said, is that the current Mexican avocado season is “looking great,” and for the first time, avocados won’t just be coming from Michoacán. Mexico and the United States reached an agreement last year to import avocados from the state of Jalisco. The first shipment of Jalisco avocados arrived in the United States in August.

But the increase in yield and the decrease in price of Mexican avocados could spell trouble for Peruvian farmers. Magaña said he doesn’t have any specific insights as to why Peruvian producers may have given away their avocados in Philadelphia. But he said Philly is a main port of entry for fruit from South America. If the Peruvian fruit was not in optimal condition when it arrived, buyers may not be required, let alone compelled, to grab it, given the Mexican avocados now widely available. (Interestingly, Australia is also dealing with an overabundance of avocados.)

Farmlink Project did not immediately respond to an email asking for more information about how it secured the avocados.

At the Philly giveaway on Wednesday, Sharing Excess workers inspected every case of avocados before handing them out, Ehlers said. Many of them were still a couple days from peak ripeness. But even if there were some small imperfections, the avocados were still better off in the public’s hands than in a landfill, the executive director said.

“Forty percent of food that’s produced in the United States goes to waste,” Ehlers said. “If we have an efficient way of redistributing out to communities, then we can have a much better society where we waste less and share more.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Rachel Wisniewski
The Philly nonprofit Sharing Excess helps to give out cases of free avocados in FDR Park in Philadelphia on Oct. 19, 2022. Supply chain issues have caused a massive surplus of the fruit coming in from South America.