Food waste is about more than what goes into the trash. Getting food from farm to fork takes an enormous amount of resources—energy, land and water. All told, the U.S. spends $218 billion each year to grow, handle, deliver and dispose of uneaten food. Meanwhile, 41 million Americans faced food insecurity in 2016.
Food is the largest component of municipal landfills. In addition to taking up space, decomposing food releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Food waste is a problem with solutions. State and federal laws, as well as efforts by businesses, organizations and consumers, can reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, helping to conserve natural resources, create economic opportunity and feed the hungry.
The topics below represent only a sampling of state policy options to reduce food waste. In 2017, more than 33 bills addressing food waste were introduced in 12 states.
The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act shields donors and recovery organizations from criminal and civil liability arising from the age, packaging or condition of donated food. All 50 states have passed their own liability laws, many of which include greater protections. Eighteen states protect food banks that charge a fee to recipients. Eight states—Arizona, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont—protect donations directly to people in need. Three states—California, Nevada and Oregon—provide protection regardless of compliance with certain labeling requirements. California and Massachusetts protect the donation of food that has passed its expiration date.
Small farmers and businesses bear a significant expense to harvest, prepare and store food for donation that would otherwise be discarded. Though federal tax incentives exist, they can be difficult to claim. State tax incentives can help offset costs for donors of all sizes.
Ten states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia—and the District of Columbia offer a tax incentive for food donations. Arizona offers a deduction; the others provide credits between 10 percent and 50 percent of the value of the donated food. States can also fund food banks directly. Minnesota’s Farm-to-Food Shelf program received a $1.1 million appropriation from the Legislature this year.
The labels on food products—sell by, use by, best by, enjoy by—are generally indicators of quality, not safety. Still, many consumers are understandably confused by the dizzying variety of labels, resulting in more food thrown in the trash.
Aside from infant formula, the federal government does not regulate food date labels. States have filled the void with laws that often create more confusion, not less, and some are considering ways to simplify labels and educate the public about what these dates mean. California enacted legislation this year (AB 954) requiring the state department of food and agriculture to promote the terms “best buy” and “use by” to communicate quality and safety dates, respectively.
Organic waste bans
Organic waste bans prohibit entities that generate large quantities of food waste from sending it to landfills. A ban compels food waste generators to reduce their output and better handle the waste they are unable to eliminate, either by donation, composting or anaerobic digestion (the process of turning food waste into biogas).
Five states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont—have passed laws to keep food out of landfills. Maryland lawmakers approved a study this year (HB 171) on methods to improve composting infrastructure and divert food waste from landfills.
In 2012, the Vermont legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law, which bans disposal of food waste, in addition to “blue bin” recyclables and yard debris. The law phases in requirements for both residents and businesses, culminating in a full ban by 2020. Food donations have grown by 40 percent, according to the Vermont Foodbank.
Massachusetts’ ban applies to businesses that generate 1 ton or more of food waste per week. A 2016 study found the ban has generated $175 million in economic activity and created more than 900 jobs for food waste haulers, processors and recovery organizations.
California’s law mandates recycling. This is part of the state’s commitment to divert 50 percent of food waste by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025. California has also pledged to recover 20 percent of edible food waste for human consumption.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.
The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions with the most benefit. Source reduction is first, followed by donations, feeding animals, industrial uses such as anaerobic digestion, and composting.
Congress held the first federal hearing on food waste in 2016 and the Food Recovery Act (H.R. 3444/S. 1680) was introduced earlier this year.
The federal government also supports private sector initiatives. The U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group includes corporations such as General Mills, Sodexo, Unilever and Walmart, all of which have made a sizable commitment to reduce food waste.