Why cutting food waste soon could get easier

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It’s hard to imagine good news coming out of Washington these days, when it feels like every morning a new crisis has popped up. So imagine my surprise when I heard that four representatives recently introduced a bill called the Food Donation Act of 2017 (H.R. 952), which addresses some of the greatest barriers that restaurants and food service companies face when they want to give away their excess edible food.

This bill clarifies and enhances the coverage areas of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, the legislation that made the donation of excess food from businesses to people in need legally protected. The Good Samaritan Act was a great first step, but as I’ve written previously here, it fell short of clarifying how food should be donated. In 1996, when the act went into effect, no federal agency was assigned to interpret and enforce the statute, which led to many ideas of what it means to donate food safely and, in some places, the false assumption that food donation isn’t even legal because of liability concerns.

I’ve been outspoken about this problem for years — at conferences, sharing with journalists and really anyone who was willing to listen. I was thrilled to see the Harvard Food and Law Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) take those learnings along with feedback from others and draft recommendations (PDF) for policy changes, many of which are being addressed by H.R. 952.

First and foremost, the proposed legislation will help clarify some ambiguous terms in the Good Samaritan Act by delegating authority to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and directing the USDA to provide guidance and promote the Good Samaritan Act (so people actually know about it). With the USDA in charge, there won’t be a guessing game of who to ask for guidance on what it means for food to be "apparently wholesome" and what constitutes "grossly negligent" donations.

The bill also will extend liability protections to establishments who want to donate directly to people in need. That’s great news for food service providers such as my employer, Bon Appétit Management Company. Anything that can be done to make the legal protections more inclusive of all types of donation programs and recipients is a win for the food recovery movement, because it means more food is likely to be donated.

Every business owner, nonprofit, man, woman and child who hates seeing good food go to waste should rally behind this legislation. For so long the industry has been fearful of doing what is right (donating excess food) because the rules weren’t very clear and didn’t seem to cover the breadth of donation programs that exist. Now we have national legislation that would potentially would fix that.

Imagine a future where food recovery is a standard part of food operations. There was a time when recycling bottles and cans was a fringe behavior by so-called tree-huggers — and now businesses that don’t help recover these precious resources are few and far between. The same can be true for food recovery and this legislation is the golden ticket to making it possible.

The Food Donation Act of 2017 will keep delicious, wholesome food out of waste bins and help nourish those who need it most. And it costs nothing — we’re already making the food. At a time when politics feels so divisive, this should be legislation we can all rally behind.

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