Awareness to Action: Rep. Pingree’s Food Recovery Act

Yesterday was a special day in the fight against wasted food. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s introduction of the Food Recovery Act marked a culmination and a commencement.

It was a culmination of what I’ll call the wasted food awareness phase. For decades, wasted food was a problem hiding in plain site. Something so obvious, yet unseeable. Yet thanks to the efforts of many, many dedicated folks, the issue has gradually become one we–individuals and industry, press and now politicians–are noticing.

With the introduction of a detailed proposal to tackle food waste from farm to fork to landfill, it feels like that awareness has served its purpose. Personally, it was a day I’ve waited 10 years to see. My first inkling of our staggering wasted food conundrum came on a sweltering D.C. day in 2005 where I saw food recovery for the first time at DC Central Kitchen. And since that time, as I’ve learned more about our national food waste habit, I’ve continually wondered why there wasn’t more federal attention on the issue, as there was in the late ’90s.

September’s joint USDA/EPA reduction goal–50 percent by 2030–shattered a long silence from Washington on wasted food. It was both eye-opening and eye-catching, and it continued the steady march of awareness. It was also ambitious in aiming to halve wasted food. But it wasn’t a plan. And that’s why Pingree’s bill marks the beginning of a new era–the action phase.

The introduction of the bill, announced Monday at the Portland (Maine) Food Co-Op, sends a clear signal that there are plenty of policy solutions for wasted food. In the coming months, you’ll see more discussion on how best to take action (and fewer conversations on how large a problem it is). Wasted food stems from both personal and systematic failings. While government can’t legislate away the former, it can remove barriers to our improvement. For example, policymakers, together with industry, can fix our expiration date muddle.  And policy shifts can certainly tackle those systematic causes of food waste like the tax deduction impasse on food donations.

As you’d expect, the Food Recovery Act of 2015 is chock full of ideas. It is a wish list of sorts, and one that provides a roadmap to give America a chance (so you’re telling us we have a chance??) of reaching that 50 percent reduction goal. Some particularly exciting ideas:

  • Standardizing date label language. If products are to have a date on them, they’d be required to use the term “Best If Used By” followed by the phrase “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only.” Both of which communicate that date labels speak to food quality, not safety.
  • Permanently extending tax deductions for all businesses that donate food, not just the large ones. Currently, C corporations are the only businesses able to receive the tax benefits for donating food, and smaller farms and businesses are forced to do it only for ethical reasons.
  • Attempting to minimize wasted food in school lunch. This would happen through an awareness program, and also revising the National School Lunch Program rules so it could minimize on-farm waste by accepting “ugly produce” and other items without a retail market.
  • Reestablishing the USDA Office of Food Recovery, led by a Director of Food Recovery. Having a ‘food waste czar’ to advocate for federal action, would be a real coup, as that position only existed for 4 years in the Clinton Administration. Bush didn’t renew the position.

Will The Food Recovery Act pass? Will it even come to the House floor for a vote? Remember that comment about it being a wish list? Don’t hold your breath.

But if it does, maybe, just maybe, the bill will illustrate that there’s nothing partisan about preventing food from reaching landfills. A more likely outcome, though, is that Pingree’s bill will prompt a robust debate in Washington on the federal role in fighting food waste (while the action occurs at home and in the private sector). And that would be a new phase, too.

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