The Field Report: In DC, Lawmakers Push ‘Common Sense’ Food Waste Solution | Civil Eats

The Field Report: In DC, Lawmakers Push ‘Common Sense’ Food Waste Solution

A new bill would make it easier for businesses and organizations to donate surplus food, helping fight hunger and reduce food waste. Plus: The UN’s latest report on world hunger, Sysco sues beef companies, and Roundup residue.

Food donations are piled up on a table in the wake of a natural disaster.

Food donations in the wake of a natural disaster in 2021. (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

The phrase “common sense” was thrown around repeatedly at an event yesterday in the U.S. Capitol Building, where lawmakers, advocates, and business leaders gathered to garner support for the Food Donation Improvement Act.

“This is something we can all agree on,” Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who introduced the bill in December, said at the event, which was hosted by the advocacy organization Food Tank. “There’s no reason not to do this.”

Experts and advocates say the bill will make it easier for businesses and organizations to donate surplus food, thereby mitigating the climate impacts of food waste and providing food to communities in need. And it has garnered strong bicameral and bipartisan support: Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Dan Newhouse (R-Washington), Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana), Grace Meng (D-New York), Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) all spoke or shared statements at the event. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) introduced a companion bill in the Senate last fall, and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) provided a statement of support.

During his remarks, McGovern was bullish on the bill’s prospects. “Whether we attach it to a bill like the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act or whether we have to bring this separately, I just want to get it over the finish line before the end of the year,” he said. “We have to focus on what we can get done in the next couple of months.”

And while the immediate focus was on the practical over transformational, McGovern also said that he and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)—who was absent due to a COVID-19 diagnosis—were spearheading a broader push to cut food waste and food insecurity through upcoming CNR and farm bill negotiations and the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

Pingree has introduced and championed several other bills to tackle food waste by changing practices in school cafeterias and inconsistencies with “use by” dates on food labels. Several provisions she introduced during the last farm bill cycle were also included in the 2018 bill.

Unlike contentious food issues like SNAP that inspire party battles, simultaneously stopping food waste and increasing food donations comes with a moral halo that appeals to both sides of the aisle (and to the many nonprofits and businesses in the room, including Weight Watchers, GrubHub, and Bowery Farming). Every day, the U.S. wastes the equivalent of 1,000 calories of food per person—enough to feed more than 150 million people each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That waste of resources also produces huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and food sent to landfills becomes an additional climate liability. Landfills are the country’s third-largest source of methane, a powerful climate-warming gas. Wasted food is the single largest category of material that ends up in landfills.

Still, the EPA’s research shows that preventing waste reduces significantly more greenhouse gases than donating excess food, and ReFed ranks strengthening food rescue behind many other climate solutions. But experts at the EPA and organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say that some surplus food will always exist, so eliminating the methane emissions it would create in landfills is a no-brainer. During the event, Emily Broad Lieb, founder of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, said her team gets frequent calls asking about liability issues with food donation. “The issues being addressed in this bill are things we talk about more than once a week,” she said.

The Food Donation Improvement Act would act as an update to a 1996 law that was meant to protect companies that donate surplus food from liability for illnesses that could result from improperly handled food—something that companies of all sizes regularly cite as an impediment to making food donations. Congress passed the earlier law without putting an agency in charge of fleshing out the details, and the update would require the USDA to release regulations clarifying the protections that exist. “The whole point was to try to make it easier and make people feel more comfortable in being able to donate food. It turns out that we need it to be clarified,” McGovern explained.

It would also extend liability protection to food businesses and farms that want to donate food directly to people in need without going through a registered nonprofit. While they were not covered in the past, for example, a restaurant shut down by the pandemic serving community meals would be protected, as would a school that wanted to send surplus food from meal programs home with low-income families. Finally, it will also cover organizations and companies that want to take surplus food and not just give it away for free but also sell it at a very low cost—such as nonprofit grocery stores that accept donations.

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“This is one piece of the large, vexing puzzle we continue to work on.”

All of the changes are modest tweaks, and advocates see them as low-hanging (ugly) fruit in the fight against food waste.

However, critics have long questioned an emphasis on food donations as a solution to hunger, since it can deprive low-income individuals of agency and does not address the root causes of food insecurity. At the event, chef and anti-hunger advocate Tom Colicchio expressed concern that lawmakers opposed to more foundational changes like universal school meals, SNAP expansions, or a higher minimum wage would point to food donation as having addressed the much deeper issue of food insecurity.

During a panel, DC Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin expressed dismay at a recent Capital Area Food Bank report that found that 36 percent of Washington, D.C. residents experienced food insecurity in 2021, even though 77 percent of them reported being employed.

“This [legislation] is needed . . . but it is only a tool, and we cannot kid ourselves into thinking that this will change those numbers,” Curtin said. “This is one piece of the large, vexing puzzle we continue to work on.”

Read More:
Stopping Food Waste Before It Starts Is Key to Reaching Climate Goals
The Farm to Food Bank Movement Aims to Rescue Small-Scale Farming and Feed the Hungry
Op-Ed: Hunger Is a Political Decision. We Can Work to End It.

Speaking of Hunger… On July 6, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released its 2022 report on the “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” and the findings are overwhelmingly alarming. After staying mostly steady since 2015, the proportion of the world population affected by hunger jumped in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, reaching 9.8 percent. That proportion is equivalent to 828 million people, an increase of nearly 200 million people since 2019. “These are depressing figures for humanity. We continue to move away from our goal of ending hunger by 2030,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said in a press release. “The ripple effects of the global food crisis will most likely worsen the outcome again next year. We need a more intense approach to end hunger.”

Read More:
Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why—and What to Do About It
Op-Ed: It Takes More Than Food to Fight Hunger

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Intentional Inflation? In the latest development related to power and concentration in the meat industry, major wholesale food distributor Sysco is suing Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef for illegally colluding to raise prices and cheat ranchers. The lawsuit comes on the heels of the Department of Justice failing to win convictions against poultry industry executives over similar price-fixing allegations. At the same time, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a statement marking the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s work as part of the Biden administration’s “competition council.” In the statement, he cited recent actions to make it easier for farmers to report antitrust violations, updating enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, and funding for small and mid-sized meat processing plants. The agency received more than 300 applications for funding that totaled $360 million—more than two and a half times the funds available.

Read More:
Congress Grills Beef Industry Leaders Over Consolidation
Just a Few Companies Control the Meat Industry: Can a New Approach Level the Playing Field?

Roundup All Around. According to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 87 percent of children and 80 percent of adults tested had detectable levels of glyphosate—the controversial and ubiquitous weedkiller—in their urine. Residue in food was the primary route of exposure. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup. In 2020, Bayer, the company that manufactures it, agreed to pay $10 billion to settle lawsuits all over the country brought by individuals that claim the chemical caused their cancers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogen, while the EPA has resisted that classification. “The Environmental Protection Agency should take concrete regulatory action to dramatically lower the levels of glyphosate in the food supply and protect children’s health,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group, in a news release about the analysis.

Read More:
Inside Monsanto’s Day in Court: Scientists Weigh in on Glyphosate’s Cancer Risks
Community-Led Efforts to Ban Glyphosate in Public Spaces Pick Up Speed

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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