Farm, Fork and Food Waste


Bag of groceries with assorted items.


One-in-5 Americans struggle to feed themselves or their family every day.  Meanwhile, nearly one-third of all the food produced for human consumption in the U.S. is wasted. The resources used to produce this food, most notably, land and water, are also being wasted.

State legislators have begun to think critically about the connection between food waste and hunger, and have acted. From implementing tax incentives to funding food rescue operations, states are harnessing collaborative relationships with businesses and nonprofit stakeholders to prevent food waste and to feed families in need. When food can’t be consumed, recycling or repurposing it as compost, animal feed or energy are also effective strategies for reducing waste.

State Level Responses | Tax Incentives and Appropriations

The cost of harvesting, transporting and storing surplus goods is high and sometimes beyond the budgets of small farmers and retailers. State level tax incentives can help to offset these costs and reinforce collaboration between producers and distributors. Tax incentives for farmers, retailers and citizens who donate surplus goods to food banks are a successful model for state legislative action. As of 2016, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia offered state tax credits for food donations. Arizona offers a state tax deduction for charitable food donations. At the federal level, tax deductions for charitable food donations are available through the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 (section 113), which can be utilized in all 50 states.  

West Virginia is the most recent state to pass legislation (SB 25) to establish farm-to-food bank tax credits for charitable food donations by farmers, effective in 2018. Some states, like Minnesota, do not have a formal state tax incentive for charitable food donations but have instead appropriated funds to food banks to facilitate the collection, distribution and storage of surplus goods. Minnesota’s Farm-to-Food Shelf program uses most of this money to provide grants to farmers for harvesting and transporting their surplus crops to Second Harvest Heartland, a Feeding America network food bank. The program was launched in 2014 and renewed in 2017 with a $1.1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature. This work, originally funded by private donations, was limited in capacity. The state legislative appropriation expanded their operations and now more than 5 million pounds of fresh produce are collected and distributed each year.

What’s Being Wasted and What’s Being Done About It?

Not all surplus foods from farmers, retailers, restaurants and manufacturers are fit for human consumption. Efforts to recycle food waste as compost, animal feed or bio-gas have increased over the years but unfortunately, most waste still ends up in landfills. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that discarded food made up 21.6 percent of all municipal solid waste (MSW), the equivalent of 36 million tons. As this food decomposes, methane gas is generated and released into the atmosphere, contributing to the “greenhouse” effect.

A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outlined the estimated quantity, value, and calories lost when food is wasted by U.S. consumers and retailers. Two striking pieces of information from this report focused on the dollar amount and top three types of foods wasted. In 2010, an estimated $161 billion dollars’ worth of food was discarded and nearly 66 percent of this value came from meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and dairy products.

Price, Type and Caloric Value of Food Wasted in 2010

133 Billion Pounds of Food Wasted

$161 Billion Dollars’ Worth of Food Waste

387 Billion Calories per Day Wasted

30% of Meat, Poultry and Fish Wasted
($48 Billion)

19% of Vegetables Wasted
($30 Billion)

17% of Dairy Products Wasted
($27 Billion)

USDA. The Estimated Amount, Value and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States (2014).


Of the foods that are palatable, only a fraction of them make it to the dinner table.

The U.S. Food Waste Challenge, initiated on June 4, 2013, by the USDA and EPA, focused on reducing, recovering and recycling food waste from the farm to dinner table. In November 2016, the USDA and EPA announced the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group, which included businesses and organizations that made public commitments to reduce their company’s food loss and waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

Large corporations like General Mills, Kellogg, PepsiCo and Sodexo were cited as champions for taking up the pledge, along with businesses such as Bon Appetit Management Company, an innovative restaurant chain that prides itself on cooking everything from scratch. To better understand this issue, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), composed of food retailers, restaurants, and manufacturers conducted a survey to examine the strengths and weaknesses of current food waste reduction practices. The results were included on their 2016 report “Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers and Restaurants” and are summarized in the next three sections, along with examples that amplify their best practices.

Achievements and barriers for reducing food waste in manufacturing, retail and restaurants






94% of diverted food waste was repurposed as animal feed or for land application



25% of diverted food donated for human consumption


48% of food waste diverted to animal feeding and composting


61% of diverted food waste was recycled as bio-based materials or bio-chemical processing like recycling used oil



Regulatory constraints (55% of respondents)


Insufficient recycling (78% of respondents)


Transportation constraints are the largest barrier for food donations and recycling (46% of respondents)


Liability concerns and transportation constraints (41% of respondents)


Transportation (44% of respondents)

Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA). Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Manufacturers, Retailers, and Restaurants (Fall 2016).


The Food Donation Connection (FDC) is an organization that emerged to assist companies with responsibly discarding surplus foods. Since 1992, it coordinated the donation of more than 400 million pounds of prepared food from more than 15,000 restaurants, in partnership with the National Restaurant Association. A strong partnership between FDC and the Darden Restaurant group led to the formation of Darden Harvest. In 2015, it donated 8 million pounds of surplus foods to charitable groups from chains like Olive Garden, The Capital Grill and Long Horn Steakhouse.


Large-scale grocery retailers also have developed manuals to prevent food waste, and unnecessary waste overall. Wegmans, for example, has strategic partnerships with more than 300 food banks in six states including Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In 2015, 145 million pounds of food were donated to its partner food banks, along with 29 million pounds of food being composted.These states adopted civil protections for food donations, and New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania also have criminal protections in place. Albertsons Safeway, which also participates in the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge, developed the Fresh Rescue food donation program in partnership with Feeding America, a national umbrella organization for food banks. In 2016, Albertsons Safeway successfully donated more than 35 million pounds of food for hungry families, animal feed and industrial use, and reduced their baseline food stock with “just-in-time” delivering.

Food Manufacturers

Food manufacturers produce a different type of food waste than retailers and restaurants. While these groups might donate apples or apple-based products to food banks, manufacturers are left to discard the apple peels. In this situation, manufacturers are likely to recycle those apple peels as animal feed or for land use. In the FWRA’s 2016 report, manufacturers reported in 2015 that 97 percent of their food waste, the equivalent of 10.3 billion pounds of food, was recycled. In this same year, Feeding America reported that it received 800 million pounds of food from the manufacturing sector, reaching more than 46 million people in need of food assistance.

The ConAgra LambWeston Case Study from the FWRA highlights a manufacturer successfully recycling its sweet potato peel waste in Delhi, La., using anaerobic digestion (A/D). This process includes a series of biological steps that breakdown organic material and produces methane gas, which can be used as a form of energy. By diverting its peel waste to animal feed and alternative energy, it kept 10,000 tons of food waste out of landfills, offset its energy demands by 20 percent, and prevented methane gas from being released into the atmosphere.

According to the American Bio-Gas Council, local and state governments can play a role in expanding access to renewable energy and food waste reduction efforts. Its state profiles include information on renewable energy/portfolios standards (REPs/RSPs), which require utility companies to sell a specific amount of renewable energy to their customers. Bio-gas qualifies as a renewable energy source and 17 out of 29 states with these standards adopted them through legislation. Partnerships between state and local governments and innovative groups, like the American Bio-Gas Council, can potentially play an integral role in reducing food waste and expanding energy options for years to come.


Food waste looks different among industries and is measured differently, depending on the organization.

The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy suggests that waste ultimately occurs when uneaten and unutilized foods end up in a landfill, which is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Composting, industrial use, animal feed and food donations are the other four tiers of the hierarchy and are sound ways to mitigate food waste.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) of USDA consider food items that were intended for human consumption, but were not consumed by a person, to be food waste. Per this measure, composted and repurposed foods are considered waste, even though they’re being used for a beneficial purpose. Awareness of these variations in measurement was raised by The New Food Economy, an online journalism platform dedicated to food-related topics. The article raised issues around data collection, measuring food waste across sectors, and broadening the term “food waste” so the definition is consistent regardless of who’s measuring it. As the definition is clarified, states and businesses should continue measuring what they discard and consider how they can adopt or revise best practices on reducing food waste.

The research and analysis of these trends should be continuously monitored by sector so that public understanding of this issue is correct and useful in reduction efforts.

Some mistakenly believe food can’t be donated, for fear of criminal or civil liability. The 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act set the stage for charitable food donations. It protects donors from liability when donating foods in good shape and paved the way for states to develop similar laws and regulations that encourage donations to charitable groups. More frequently, food pantries are encouraging the donation of healthy and fresh foods, and nonperishable items like canned goods, rather than desserts, sugary drinks, candy or expired foods. It is possible, albeit a challenge, to reduce waste, fight hunger, and provide healthy food options to those in need.


For federal, state and local governments, food waste reduction across industries is vital to hunger alleviation efforts and management of landfills. Innovative solutions to food waste and hunger can result from strong partnerships between legislative, private and nonprofit stakeholders. As legislators seek to address hunger and food waste in their state, these cost-effective and multisector examples can guide their efforts to a less hungry and less wasteful community. Collaboration between public and private partners is at the core of these efforts address the link between farm, fork, and food waste.

Prepared by Sakeenah Shabazz, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow, NCSL Hunger Partnership, May, 2017. For more information, visit the Hunger and Nutrition homepage or contact Ann Morse, NCSL Hunger Partnership director.