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Fair share: How a sharing economy can chomp down on food waste

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Adapted from "The Food Sharing Revolution: How Start-Ups, Pop-Ups, and Co-Ops are Changing the Way We Eat," (Published by Island Press, 2018)

It is one of the worst-kept secrets of the conventional foodscape: waste. Given our collective glorification of efficiency, it is frankly startling just how wasteful we are when it comes to what and how we eat. A recent report by attorneys in the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic estimates that approximately 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted, which translates into 160 billion pounds of food annually. That is more than 2 million calories for every four-person household.

There are a lot of reasons why we waste food: subsidies, which can lead to "overproduction" (an ironic term, given all the hungry people out there); social norms, which in some cultures encourage taking more than can be eaten; aesthetic standards, which require fruits and vegetables to look a certain way; infrastructure  deficiencies, which are particularly problematic in lower income countries, where storage facilities are more likely to stand in disrepair. But there is another reason, a big one: laws. Laws at the federal, state and local levels make it difficult, impossible even, to get food that would otherwise go unused to those who need it.

Ask any retail or restaurant manager about the biggest risk associated with donating food waste, and chances are their angst can be summed up with one word: liability. The perception is that if you donate food to someone and they get sick or, worse, they die, you are potentially liable for their injury. Having that responsibility hanging over your head makes throwing away food the less risky option. Jacob Gersen, Harvard Law School professor and director of the Food Law Lab, put it this way: “Often it is easier to do the wrong thing; or rather, the law has made wasting food the only thing for many restaurants.”

Recognizing this, states and the federal government have passed what are known as Good Samaritan laws. These are designed to reduce liability, as long as donors are not grossly negligent or looking to make people sick. To further incentivize food donation, there are also tax benefits that come with sharing, but only if the donation is made to a charitable third party.

Activists and attorneys are trying to remove this middleman requirement. In a lot of cities, it is illegal to share food with the homeless, at least in public spaces. Stories abound of people getting fined for this. Take the one involving Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who got busted by cops in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, twice in one week for doling out food to the homeless. Abbott was quoted in his local newspaper: "A policeman pulled my arm and said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ like it was a gun."

A platform has emerged to smooth the rough spots between grocery stores and charities that want it: FoodCloud.

FoodCloud is a not-for-profit social enterprise — a legally recognized entity, on both sides of the pond, whose mission is to generate social dividends. This is not to say FoodCloud works for free. Retailers are charged a fee for this service, enough to pay FoodCloud employees a livable wage. In 2016, the company grew from working with 200 stores to more than 1,200 across the United Kingdom and Ireland. The receiving end, meanwhile, includes more than 3,300 community groups and charities.

"FoodCloud differs from the food bank model in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is in where we get our food from." This quote came from Maggie, a food safety inspector for the nonprofit. An acquaintance employed by Tesco Ireland gave me her phone number. Luck would have it that she was in London visiting her mum during a period when I also happened to be in the city. We met at a noisy Starbucks in the stately Kensington district. What stuck with me most about the interview was Maggie’s voice. Low and soft, it seemed to operate at its own frequency, effortlessly cutting through all the background noise. It reminded me of a goose down feather, indescribably soft around the edges but with a stout, penetrating core. My digital recorder had no trouble catching every word.

Maggie again: "The food bank model involves getting food from manufacturers — the broken biscuits supply chain." This is a reference to donations that are unsuitable for retail, like a pummeled package of biscuits, which, to be clear, does not mean they are unsafe. (A few phone calls to food banks in Ireland told a slightly different story. As with food banks in North America, most of those I spoke with sourced from manufacturers, retailers, and distributors.) She went on to explain how FoodCloud receives its donations from retailers, "which means we tend to get greater quantity and often greater quality too; not something broken or banged up but something that might be approaching its ‘best before’ date but is otherwise perfect."

The platform works something like this. Businesses upload information about food destined for the landfill. Local charities are then notified. The first to accept the food is awarded the contract. To be eligible, charities must be registered; have, or have in the works, a food safety management system; and have staff with relevant food safety training.

FoodCloud’s cofounders, Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward, appear keenly aware of the frictions that hamper sharing, tensions that are only amplified when talking about food.

Charities, by their very nature, are often ill-equipped to handle food. Not all have the good fortune of being backed by entrepreneurial icons such as Bill and Melinda Gates. Instead, many operate on shoestring budgets, trying their best to reduce risk and liability while keeping up with safety regulations and practices. Without outside assistance, such expertise is often too much to ask from financially strapped charities. More than a pass-through middleman, FoodCloud is a genuine partner, helping to ease the burdens of all involved.

My conversation with Maggie continued down this track, about the need to make sure that, in her words, "sharing doesn’t kill anyone." With that, she reached into her bag and pulled out a thin book published by the Food Standards Agency, a nonministerial department of the U.K. government responsible for protecting public health. Pointing at its cover, she added, "You can change what’s in that book. You can also think about how to operate within existing law." She set the book down and pointed at her chest, which I took to mean and that’s where I come into the picture.

"I think FoodCloud is an example of real outside-the-box thinking. We’re changing business as usual but in a way that big business can get behind. What’s more radical than that?" I am not sure if it is exactly radical, but it is certainly pragmatic. Given that it seems to be producing results, it’s certainly worth exploring further.