Consider the following paradox: Americans waste more per capita than any nation on Earth—40% of our food ends up rotting in fields and landfills—while at the same time our population grows ever hungrier. In the wake of the pandemic, 35 million Americans are food insecure—about 10 percent of our population—and the combined pressures of inflation, geopolitical conflict, and climate change will only exacerbate the strain on global food production.
For years there have been bills in the pipeline of Congress intended to direct surplus food to needy populations, and for years they have been ignored. It’s time for action. The Food Donation Improvement Act, which was signed into law Thursday by President Joe Biden, is the first of many important steps that could resolve the stark contradiction between food surpluses and food shortages in America.
Not since President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996 has the US passed major food donation legislation. The new legislation updates the Emerson Act with common sense and long overdue reforms that will allow schools, farmers, restaurants, Businesses, manufacturers and retailers donate surplus food directly to members of their community.
The new rules ease the burden of liability so that certified private donors who already have safety checks in place will not be held legally responsible for food quality or spoilage. The law to improve food donations removes a provision that requires donations from the private sector to be transferred through food aid organizations. Under Emerson’s law, a school or restaurant, for example, cannot legally donate its surplus food directly to hungry families in its community. She must route the donation through a food bank that may be a long drive away, only for the food to be directed back to recipients in her neighborhood. Ditto for local farms, supermarkets, corporate cafeterias, food manufacturing plants, and other high-volume food facilities that all too often choose to trash their surplus rather than deal with legally complex and logistically cumbersome donation processes.
Such barriers have led to incredible waste: the private sector wastes billions of pounds of nutritious food every year. And while the Food Donation Improvement Act can help curb this crisis, there is still much work to be done. It’s not enough, come on, to simply make it easier to donate food to needy populations. There should be incentives, and even requirements, to do so.
Business leaders should, themselves, make it a priority in 2023 to recover and redirect the food their companies waste. But members of the 118th Congress could also provide a carrot, significantly expanding the tax incentives available for food donations by passing another bill already in the legislative pipeline called the Further Incentivizing Nutritious Donations, or FIND, Food Act. FIND deserves the same spirit of bipartisan and non-governmental support that made possible the passage of the Food Donation Act.
Governors nationwide can also help by following the example of New York and California—states that already have laws requiring donations from certain businesses with high volumes of food and safety inspections in place.
The passage of the law to improve food donation should encourage support for related bills that have already been introduced, primarily the food labeling law, which was proposed and passed in the last three congresses. It will increase food recovery by standardizing expiration dates on perishable foods such as meat and dairy. Currently, expiration date standards vary widely from country to country, leading to the discarding of healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Legislators should also get behind the ambitious Zero Food Waste Act, launched in 2021, which would encourage the development of local regimes that limit food from ending up in landfills, while also helping to fund essential infrastructure for mass food donation, such as networks. of storage facilities and distribution fleet.
It’s hard to overstate how shameful, how anachronistic—and above all, how intractable—the parallel crises of hunger and waste are in America. “Hunger is not inevitable,” said U.S. Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, one of the sponsors of the Food Donation Act, when he pushed for the bill’s approval last month. A match we can solve.”
Solving this will not be easy. Food-related legislation is notoriously difficult to pass because it spans multiple agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and numerous congressional committees, making it difficult to manage large pieces of legislation with all the necessary components.
But decisive momentum is building, thanks to a coalition of organizations and nongovernmental institutions, including Harvard Law School, the Food Law and Policy Clinic, WeightWatchers International Inc., Food Tank, Grubhub and the Natural Resources Defense Council. These and other groups focused on food justice helped build the critical mass of bipartisan support that drove the eleventh-hour donation drive.
We can hope, if not assume, that this support will continue to grow. The twin goals of solving hunger and curbing food waste have never been more urgent and more irrelevant across party lines. Against the background of a punishing war in Ukraine, increasingly volatile climate conditions, fragile supply chains and the spread of hunger around the world, there is simply no more room for wasteful waste.
More from other Bloomberg opinion writers:
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• Can the world live on less water?: Sarah Green Carmichael
• College students don’t need lessons about hunger either: Adam Minter
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg opinion writer covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and the author of the book “The Fate of Food: What We Eat in a Big, Hot, Smart World.”
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