Food Waste and The Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021
"Food waste is not only an environmental problem, but a social and moral conundrum." These words, spoken by Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank, are more true than ever. I was recently able to attend a virtual conference hosted by Food Tank and WW International where they discussed the Emerson Act of 1996. Also known as the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, the Emmerson Act was created to incentivize businesses to donate excess food to shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens while providing them a certain level of liability protection. Even so, many companies are hesitant to donate surplus food due to fear of someone getting sick, as well as the logistical factors of time and energy spent sorting and donating this food. The Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021 is a bi-partisan legislation introduced to try and combat food waste, one of our biggest national and global issues.
It is estimated that in the United States alone, 80 billion pounds of food is discarded every year. This accounts for almost 40% of our entire food supply and breaks down to 219 pounds per person, per year. Despite this extraordinary amount of excess food, 35 billion people in this country are facing food insecurity. Both of these problems, waste and hunger, have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people stay home, the take-out industry has boomed, requiring the use of more plastic and non-biodegradable products. The employment drop and financial repercussions faced as a result of the pandemic will leave even more people facing food insecurity in 2022.
When we talk about food waste, it is important to differentiate between food waste and food loss. Food loss takes place in the earlier stages, relating mostly to production, storage, processing and distribution. Food waste occurs at the consumer level, where food is safe for consumption but is discarded by retailers or consumers. While food waste occurs at all levels to some degree, the following graphic breaks down exactly where the waste is occurring.
Over 80% of food waste is happening at the retail and consumer levels. This waste has a myriad of negative impacts on our economy and our environment. With 95% of discarded food ending up in landfills, food waste is contributing drastically to climate change. When food sits in a landfill pit, natural degradation takes a very long time due to a lack of oxygen and releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas that worsens climate change. In addition to this, every pound of wasted food is still using important resources such as water, electricity, natural gas, fuel, and human labor.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created what's called the Food Recovery Hierarchy. This is ideally how excess food would be allocated in order to minimize the harmful effects, both socially and environmentally, caused by food waste.
- Source Reduction: Reduce the volume of surplus food generated.
- Feed Hungry People: Donate extra food to food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens.
- Feed Animals: Divert food scraps to animal feed.
- Industrial Uses: Provide waste oils for rendering and fuel conversion and food scraps for digestion to recover energy.
- Composting: Create a nutrient-rich soil amendment.
- Landfill/Incineration: Last resort to disposal.
The second tier in this hierarchy, Feed Hungry People, is what the Food Donation Act of 2021 is aiming to improve.
The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was created in 1996 to encourage the donation of food to non-profit organizations to be redistributed to those facing food insecurity. The Act states that companies will be protected from civil and criminal liability in the case that someone becomes ill as a result of donated food. Despite its intentions, the Act remains incredibly vague and many companies do not feel it offers a strong enough level of protection, dissuading them from donating food to charitable organizations. According to panel discussions during the Food Tank conference, the Emerson Act falls short in the following ways:
- The legislation is not clear.
- It does not clearly outline what foods are acceptable for donation.
- It has never been contested.
- Many food manufacturers (retailers/farmers/restaurants) do not feel like the legislation adequately protects them from liability.
- It only protects Qualified Direct Donors: Food must be donated to a non-profit organization that then redistributes the food. Smaller organizations such as schools or restaurants that have minimal amounts of food to donate at the end of the day, but nowhere to take it, end up discarding the food.
- It was never assigned to a Federal Agency, contributing to a lack of accountability and structure.
The Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021 is a bill that was presented to Congress on December 13th, 2021. This is an equally bi-partisan bill sponsored by congressional members James McGovern [D], Chellie Pingree [D], Dan Newhouse [R], and Jackie Walorskie [R]. According to Food Tank, the bill "will strengthen liability protections to food businesses including manufacturers, retailers, farmers, and restaurants who wish to donate surplus food. It will also clarify existing guidance and best practices to help businesses donate food safely and without risk of litigation". The 3 key facets of the bill are:
- Allowing for a "Good Samaritan Reduced Price", encouraging businesses to sell "apparently wholesome or fit products" to consumers, rather than simply having to donate them.
- Expand Qualified Direct Donors, allowing organizations such as restaurants, schools, and retailers to donate directly to "needy individuals".
- Strengthen the definitions surrounding protection from civil or criminal liability to those Qualified Direct Donors who donate food to needy individuals.
Democratic sponsors McGovern and Pingree believe these amendments to the legislation are an important first step in encouraging businesses to donate more of their surplus food. However, food waste must be combated at all levels, including minimizing limitations to who can receive SNAP benefits, increasing how much money individuals are allocated, and addressing shortcomings with school lunch programs. Pingree argues that "we need successful channels to get food where it needs to go". Similarly, McGovern believes that "this bill is just one piece of the puzzle. We need to work on infrastructure, transportation, health systems that are separated from food - these are all issues that contribute to food waste".
Common Ground is committed to minimizing food waste throughout our store. Over the years, we have implemented a number of initiatives to keep food out of landfills.
- Shrink: There are often products that we cannot sell in the store due to appearance, quality, or sell-by dates. Our staff gets the first pick of all these items. Many staff members are able to substantially supplement their grocery shopping by utilizing shrink. Our staff gets to save money on groceries and can experiment with produce, seasonal foods, cheeses, meats, and prepared foods. Shrink helps keep food out of landfills, allows our employees to save money on food, and enables them to better speak to our customers about the products we offer.
- Composting: There are many different types of foods that are picked up for composting at Common Ground. We have a compost bin in the front of the store for our customers to put food scraps or compostable packaging, our produce department provides expired produce and trimmings such as stems or leaves, and our prepared food departments contribute food scraps and coffee grounds. Our main composter, MJ, has been picking up food from Common Ground and composting it for over 30 years! She picks up food throughout the week and composts it on her farm. Our wellness manager Saylay also picks up compostable food once a week and converts it to soil for her large home garden.
- Donations: Common Ground has also supplied food to various local organizations such as Jubilee Cafe, Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, and Future Farmers of America.
Considering that 43% of food waste occurs at home, it is extremely important for all of us to do our best to minimize food waste. There are a lot of very simple things we can do to ensure that all of the food we put in our shopping carts gets eaten.
- Planning your meals for the week will help you from making impulse purchases and buying more food than you will actually be able to eat.
- Before making a shopping list, take an inventory of items you already have in your refrigerator and pantry and plan your meals around that.
- Make sure you are taking into account any meals that will be eaten out or ordered in.
- Proper Storage
- Many fruits and vegetables expire faster when stored improperly.
- Store bananas, apples, and tomatoes by themselves.
- Store potatoes in a dry, dark area.
- Placing a paper towel with greens such as lettuce and spinach will keep them fresh for longer.
- Refrain from washing berries until you are going to eat them. This will prevent them from molding as quickly.
- Freeze, preserve, or can fruits and vegetables that you don't think you will be able to eat before they go bad.
- There are a number of products available that are designed specifically to keep produce fresh for longer. Not only will this help you enjoy the food you have spent money on, but it will also eliminate the need for disposable storage such as Ziploc bags or saran wrap.
- Many fruits and vegetables expire faster when stored improperly.
- Check-in with family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors to see if they need any food that you don't think you will eat.
- There are a number of places in Champaign-Urbana that accept personal food donations. Sola Gratia Farm in Urbana has a food donation box where individuals can donate food that will then be donated to non-profit organizations such as Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
- While composting at home feels daunting, it is actually quite possible if you have the space and resources. This article from Quiethut.com outlines how to successfully start a home compost.