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University program recovers food without getting sued

University of Arkansas and its law school work to pass fresh foods to the needy, reducing hunger without creating a legal liability.

In 2011, the University of Arkansas was reluctant to begin a food recovery program. The thought of diverting edible yet perishable food to hungry people conjured concerns of litigation. But times change.

Now, in 2014, the University of Arkansas has received an award from the EPA for our commitment to food recovery, starred in the 30-minute documentary "Tossed Out: Food Waste in America," and recently received $260,000 from a corporate sponsor to bolster food recovery efforts.

For many organizations, there is enormous perceived risk and little return to be found in food recovery — but this perception is far from true. The success of the University of Arkansas food recovery initiatives demonstrates, programmatically and academically, that food recovery has low risks and produces high returns.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food recovery is the second most preferred method of managing food waste (after source reduction). Food recovery diverts edible yet perishable food from the landfill by feeding hungry people. Typically, as in the case of the University of Arkansas, dedicated volunteers work with food service providers to take edible food at the end of the workday and provide the logistics for delivering the food to hungry people via food banks, shelters and other charitable organizations.

To date, the University of Arkansas Razorback Food Recovery program (part of the national Food Recovery Network), has diverted nearly 20,000 pounds of food waste and provided thousands of meals to those in need since February.

Food recovery exemplifies the triple bottom line approach to sustainability: people, planet and profit.

EPA pyramid of food recovery

The EPA's Hierarchy of Food Recovery ranks the desirability of various ways to prevent food waste.

Many benefits to food recovery

UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that nearly one-third of all food produced ends up being discarded due to inefficiencies in production and supply chains. In the United States alone, nearly 160 billion pounds of food is wasted annually. At the same time one in five families in America are food insecure.

Food recovery works to reduce food waste by connecting food surpluses to families fighting food insecurity. Recovering just 15 percent of total food waste could provide nutrition for nearly 25 million Americans.

In addition, food recovery programs foster goodwill and sense of community. For places such as Arkansas that have high rates of food insecurity statewide — and even on the U of A campus — food recovery acts as a temporary but timely solution for addressing hunger.

By engaging in food recovery, food waste is diverted from the landfill, where it contributes to the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times worse than carbon. While some sanitary landfills engage in methane harvesting for the production of electricity, the EPA suggests sending organic material to the landfill as a last management resort.

Additionally, for those signatories of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, reduced emissions associated with landfill disposal helps achieve carbon reduction goals and provides an excellent talking point for bringing awareness to the dual issues of environmental sustainability and social justice.

Fine-tuning food usage

The economics of food recovery show a positive return on investment through avoided tipping fees and overages of food production, as well as possible tax credits for qualifying organizations. Tipping fees vary wildly by geographical location. In Arkansas, the tipping fees average around $120 a ton, but can be as high as $700 in some urban areas in America.

In addition, by food recovery data such as weight and items donated, food service providers can better understand their overages in food production. Once that data is analyzed and internalized, food service operations can better anticipate the amount of food that should be prepared and avoid surplus production, which decreases purchasing, production and servicing costs.

Last of all, those interested in tax codes should consult their tax attorneys about Section 170 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1976, which encourages food donations by allowing corporations to earn an enhanced tax deduction for donating select surplus property, which includes food. The University of Arkansas has yet to finish a full year of food recovery, but we are hopeful that we our efforts are saving us money.

Fruit on a scale reminiscent of the scales of justice

Too often, those who would donate perishable food must weigh the good it does versus the possibility of a lawsuit.

Food without legal complications

While food recovery embodies the ethos of a triple bottom line, many in the food industry have lingering legal concerns. At the University of Arkansas, those concerns were best addressed on our campus by an engaged group of lawyers with the School of Law’s LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law who publish easy-to-understand legal informational resources and practical guides to food recovery. Without their assistance, the University of Arkansas would not have overcome these legal barriers, both real and perceived, quite so easily.

The Law School’s Food Recovery Project confronts the twin problems of food waste and hunger while advancing legal and policy tools to address both. One of those tools is "Food Recovery: A Legal Guide (PDF)." The guide outlines the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (PDF), a law that protects organizations engaged in food recovery from civil and criminal liability. The guide provides information to the retail food industry about how to secure these important legal protections. The guide is an excellent reference for any food service provider, student leader or corporate officer interested in starting a food recovery program.

The FRP also works to educate stakeholders about the other legal aspects of food recovery including, food safety and labeling, federal tax treatment of food donations, regulation of recovered and salvaged food, laws pertaining to “garbage feeding” of livestock, and food product dating laws.

The FRP also consults with food businesses, charitable feeding organizations, and governmental agencies on the development of low-risk, high-benefit food recovery policies and protocols that balance interests of safety, sustainability, economy, charity and nutrition. Through this work, the FRP helps food businesses to capture the value hidden in what they might otherwise toss out and charitable feeding organizations to obtain wholesome food for clients in need.

There are, however, challenges that should be considered before deploying a food recovery program. Basic necessities, from storage containers to complicated logistics, must be addressed. Food safety training is also required for all volunteers. Partnerships among a wide range of campus and regional constituents is necessary for a program to succeed. There are also perceptions of risk and illegality, as well as cultural attitudes that landfill is an easier alternative to planning, training and oversight. But all of these barriers can be overcome.

Feast on the low-hanging fruit

Food recovery has less risk and more benefits than most institutions realize. It is also a common sense move for those organizations that recognize food recovery is good for people, planet and profit. The University of Arkansas School of Law will continue to be a resource for organizations interested in food recovery policies and programs and will build upon their successful publications.

As for that $260,000 corporate gift, Razorback Food Recovery will use it to launch a mentoring program to help other colleges and universities open pantries and food recovery projects by creating a training institute, and to support materials and mini grants for new programs. It’s an exciting time to be engaged in food recovery at the University of Arkansas.

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