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Foodstuff

Strategies for the war on waste

food in bag

Food waste is a global problem that needs a global strategy. 

What would happen if the United States enacted a comprehensive plan to combat food loss and waste? Now is the moment to ask, because the new U.S. administration is proving itself open to genuinely ambitious change. The answer? A cascade of benefits would follow, from economic savings to reduced hunger to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

A new action plan that’s just eight pages long but packed with game-changing proposals is the best blueprint I’ve seen for how to achieve these gains. It’s the work of some leading players in this area: ReFED, a nonprofit that works on food waste; WWF; Natural Resources Defense Council; and Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Here are just a few highlights — and ideas on how your organization can get involved.

Keep organic waste out of landfills and incinerators 

Why? The current situation is insane: Organic waste is the single biggest input in landfills, where it produces the potent greenhouse gas methane as it decomposes. Some of this waste is perfectly good food. The rest could be used to make compost.

How? Cities and states can incentivize food donation and disincentivize disposal, the latter either by raising landfill prices or banning organic waste altogether, as Vermont and Massachusetts have done.

What’s the impact? Take your pick: According to ReFED and partners, expanding infrastructure to prevent food loss and waste would generate 18,000 jobs annually through 2030, avoid close to 6 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions and boost soil fertility and profitability of U.S. farms and ranches.

Expand food donation infrastructure and incentives

Why? Another thing that’s insane: Less than 10 percent of surplus food is donated rather than wasted, while one in 10 U.S. households reported lacking the resources needed to feed all members during 2019. (That, of course, was before the pandemic.)

How? A quirk of the current situation is that donors only get tax deductions when they gift food to organizations that give it away. The action plan recommends expanding the tax credit to include a broader range of organizations, including "socal supermarkets," which sell food at heavily discounted prices. Another solution involves expanding the pandemic programs that have created new supply chains between farmers and consumers.

What’s the impact? Fewer hungry families and new revenue streams for farmers.

Organic waste is the single biggest input in landfills.

End the confusion over date labels 

Why? Nearly 85 percent of Americans throw away food that’s good to eat because they don’t understand date labels.

How? The Food Industry Association, a leading trade body, wants to end the confusion by using just two labels. After the "Best by" date, the product is safe but may not be as tasty or nutritious. If the "Use by" date has passed, the product should be disposed of for safety reasons. Bills to mandate the use of these labels already have been introduced into the House and the Senate. 

What’s the impact? More than half a million tons of waste would be diverted, leading to $2 billion in annual savings.

The action plan is framed as being "for Congress and the Administration," so I called up Dana Gunders, ReFED’s executive director, to ask how the organizations behind it would get politicians to act. 

She told me she’s hopeful of an attentive reception, in part because Tom Vilsack, the new agriculture secretary, championed food waste issues when he held the same position in President Barack Obama’s administration. Gunders added that the action plan, like the infrastructure bill that Congress is working on, features multiple "win-win solutions" — a point that the plan’s backers will be making in meetings with Senate staff over the next few weeks, she added.

There are two things you can do if you’re interested in your organization getting involved. First, read the whole action plan — it’s packed with ideas that I didn’t have space for here. Next, consider signing up here to join Unilever, Kroger and others as a supporter of the plan. 

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