5 Things I Learned While Lobbying Congress on Food Waste

A food waste wonk goes to Washington (with a team of celebrity chefs).

Commentary, Food Waste

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When I wrote a book about food waste six years ago, I never imagined attending a White House roundtable or lobbying Congress on the issue. But I recently had the chance to do both, with only the latter being somewhat on the record.

I was invited to be part of a team organized by Tom Colicchio’s advocacy group, Food Policy Action Education Fund, and the multistakeholder ReFED collaborative nudging lawmakers to tackle food waste. More specifically, I spent the day drumming up support for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s (D-Maine) Food Date Labeling Act. The bill would standardize date labels, changing what is currently an unregulated mess to a system that clearly distinguishes between food quality and safety dates. It would also allow for the sale or donation of food after its quality date, which is currently restricted or prohibited in 20 states.

With that goal in mind, our merry band of food waste fighters set out to educate and evangelize to members of Congress. In addition to myself, there was Colicchio, Chef Victor Albisu of Del Campo, Chef Kevin Spraga of Spraga and Company, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s Dana Gunders, and Food Policy Action’s Claire Benjamin.

Here’s what we learned:

Have a Game Plan

Before entering our first Congressional office, we came up with a rough plan. Albisu and Spraga would open by explaining their personal connection to the issue. They would emphasize their personal connection to the issue, and share their frustration with the fact that their customers often don’t finish the high-quality, fine-crafted fare they serve, especially when so many Americans are food insecure. Next, Gunders and I would hit them with the impact and opportunity of food waste. And Colicchio was there to close the deal.

In practice, lobbying reminded me of being a kid. We were essentially pleading those in power—our Congressional parents—to do something that was not their first priority. And we had to frame our pitch differently to each party because, like parents, each holds such divergent views.

For that reason, we used a slightly different approach depending on whether we were visiting a Democrat or a Republican. For example, we emphasized food waste’s climate impact in the former and didn’t utter that word in the latter. We focused on the fiscal irresponsibility of food waste in red offices, and the opportunity to help those in need in blue ones. We were on the lookout for Republicans wanting to use redistribution of food currently wasted as an excuse for cutting food assistance. (It came up once—“Can we save money on nutrition programs here?”) And incentives, not regulation, were a key in a few Republican offices.

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There were several surprises, though. A leading Democrat expressed strong deference to the food industry. One prominent Republican staffer wanted to talk about poverty, and rural poverty in particular. Another Republican said he felt pressure to “get something done” to show that D.C. isn’t totally dysfunctional. Happily, he was hinting that tackling food waste was something quite doable.

For both parties, the feasibility of our “ask” was important. And, fortunately, food waste is anything but divisive. Nearly everyone can support wasting less food. “This sounds bipartisan,” one staffer for a high-profile G.O.P. Congressman told our group. Indeed; nobody is for the status quo of wasting 40 percent of our food.

Know Who’s Supporting a Legislator

If lobbying felt like asking parents to do something, it also became clear that the parents had bosses—their major donors. The first question we got from one Democratic staffer about the Food Date Labeling Act was, “what does the food industry say about this?” There was a palpable reluctance in several offices to push for regulations and a tendency to let the food industry self-reform.

Colicchio responded saying that date label legislation is needed because, despite an expression of interest, industry often drags its feet. And we noticed that some lawmakers were a bit reluctant to discuss changing the dates on food labels after recent pushback from the food companies on GMO labeling, the use of the term “natural,” and the new Nutrition Facts labels on packages.

Know Who’s on Your Team

Another key factor, I learned, was momentum—or perceived momentum. One Congressman asked whether any major food companies were supporting the Food Date Labeling Act and stressed how important that would be. It’s just much easier to join a winning team. Knowing that such corporate support existed made passage more likely, and thus, enabled more lawmaker support. In that way, the associations of powerful companies with the bill created a self-fulfilling policy prophecy.

One question we often heard was, “how can I help?” This seems to be Hillspeak for “what’s your ask already?” or “get to the point.” In our case, we asked them to support the matching bills of Pingree and Senator Blumenthal (D-CT). In some cases, we heard the sweetest words you can hope for in lobbying: “You have my vote.”

Those words only come through patience and persistence. We spent plenty of time waiting, despite having Colicchio with us, the same guy who kept getting stopped in the hall for photos and for whom we gamely waited while he taped a NewsHour interview. I can only imagine how much waiting less-famous lobbyists for unpopular causes endure. There’s a reason the front room of every Congressional office, no matter how small, has comfortable seating and plenty of magazines. That helps you realize how the job got its name–lobbyists literally spend most of their times waiting in lobbies!

Cultivate Patience

For of the above reasons, lobbying requires stamina. You have to repeatedly, energetically deliver your spiel once you’re invited onto each Congress member’s couch (there’s always a couch). Meanwhile, we did a decent amount of zipping between the four buildings in the Capitol complex. All that walking and talking—while not exactly the stuff of beer commercials—can make a lobbyist quite parched.

It’s no wonder, then, that at the end of a long day, lobbyists—be they chefs, advocates, or actual ones—appreciate a cold beverage. Fortunately, a four-term Congresswoman like Pingree knows that well and she and Food Policy Action hosted a reception with a special food waste-inspired menu prepared by some of the participating chefs. Because in addition to being thirst-inducing, a day of food waste lobbying makes a guy seek out the comfort of a few sliders. Juice pulp and farro sliders, natch.

Pingree’s office says it is expecting Congressional hearings on the Food Date Labeling Act by end of year and anticipates gaining more co-sponsors soon.

 

Photo credits, from top: Food Policy Action, Dana Gunders.

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  1. Kevin Floyd
    Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
    I really appreciate reading about how the political process actually works. This post has some really relevant and practical pointers for how to deal with lobbying politicians. Let's hope the bill gets passed! Nice job!
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