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Where the US Stands on Federal Food Waste Policy

Originally published by Waste Dive on June 27, 2018. Written by Cole Rosengren.

While it may have been overshadowed by recycling commodity issues, and other big shifts in federal environmental policy, food waste is still on the agenda in Washington, D.C. and gaining momentum.

That has been one of the key messages so far at this year’s U.S. Food Waste Summit—hosted by the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic (HFLPC) and ReFED in Cambridge, Massachusetts—among participants from business, government, philanthropic organizations and other sectors. Some of the more than 350 attendees even traveled internationally, with a wait list and livestream available for overflow.

Much of the work that’s happening is being driven by the private sector, or state and local government, but activity is also ongoing nationally. One June 26 panel discussion highlighted some of the key areas to watch for the rest of 2018.

The Farm Bill:

The biannual farm bill is seen as a catch-all opportunity for any type of agricultural issues. This time around, advocates are looking to make sure that food waste is a bigger part of that discussion. While the latest version already doesn’t have everything they’d hoped for, the work continues to maximize this chance.

Earlier this year, the HFLPC helped launch a new Farm Bill Law Enterprise. A House Food Waste Caucus was also created by Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, and David Young, R-IA. The work is expected to be ongoing, but Pingree’s counsel Kelliann Blazek outlined what to watch for in the weeks ahead.

  • Blazek said legislation such as the Food Recovery Act and Food Date Labeling Act were never meant to pass on their own, but rather serve as suggestions or outlines for what could go into the Farm Bill. The Food Donation Act, recently sponsored in the Senate by Orrin Hatch, R-UT, is also a relevant one to watch.
  • While the Farm Bill’s language continues to change through amendments, it currently appears to contain multiple provisions around food waste. Relevant items under discussion include a food waste liaison position in the USDA, a milk donation reimbursement program for farmers, funding for food waste and specialty crop research, and $25 million in funding for community composting or municipal food waste reduction programs.
  • Whatever happens with the Farm Bill, Pingree’s office expects to keep pushing the issue by attracting new members to the bipartisan caucus and focusing on food waste within Congressional buildings. “Really the first step is just awareness,” said Blazek. “There’s a lot happening on the Hill right now. People are getting pulled in millions of directions.”

EPA & USDA Priorities

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made headlines in 2015 when they announced a goal to cut food waste 50% by 2030. One year into that goal, it was clear strategies were still evolving and the actual target might be more aspirational than attainable.

Once the Trump administration took over in 2017, many wondered whether the goal would remain in place at all. For the first year or so this policy appeared to fly under the radar—either because it was voluntary or because cabinet members had bigger priorities in mind—but as of 2018, it appears to be alive and well.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue hosted a food waste roundtable discussion in May, followed by a supportive statement saying that, “Our nation’s agricultural abundance should be used to nourish those in need, not fill the trash … So many people work on food waste issues in their own spheres, but it’s time to change the culture and adopt a holistic approach to get everyone working together and sharing ideas.”

  • Both agencies were represented at the panel. Kathleen Salyer, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation, said the agency’s current focus was on improving measurement metrics to better understand the scope of the challenge. New national data, due out in 2019, is expected to help inform next steps.
  • Elise Golan, director of sustainable development in the USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist, said multi-agency collaboration was a big focus. The Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are seen as key partners.
  • Golan also emphasized the need for greater collaboration from private sector partners to achieve this 2030 target. “The government is not creating all of this waste and we are not going to be able to stop it,” she said.

After the panel, Golan told Waste Dive she is optimistic about the renewed attention from USDA and sees this as very much in line with the spirit of the agency’s mission to help farmers and increase access to the nutritious food they’re growing. “Almost everything we deal with has a flip side and the flip side is reducing food loss and waste,” she said.

That angle of helping farmers, investing in rural infrastructure and boosting domestic self-sufficiency is also seen as a good fit for President Donald Trump’s stated priorities.

“This really is about making American farmers stronger, American consumers stronger and utilizing everything that we are producing to its highest value,” said Golan. “So there would be no reason that this effort couldn’t be part of that discussion and part of that effort.”

Tools & Events:

As these larger national conversations progress, the stakeholders also have a variety of resources that are already available. The EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge and U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champions 2030 programs are ongoing, along with the USDA’s Foodkeeper app to help with food storage and planning. 

  • The EPA is formalizing the release of a new anaerobic digester capacity survey—initially previewed on BioCycle—in the coming weeks. The agency also just launched an interactive EPA Excess Food Opportunities Map to help link up large generators and processors. A webinar on the tool is scheduled for July 12.
  • Salyer also previewed future reports from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation—a North American partnership—on food waste in 2019, after two were released earlier this year.
  • The USDA is teaming up with the FDA to create a “golden one-pager” around date label language with the goal of clearing up ongoing consumer confusion.
  • The Further with Food resource website, initially announced at the first Harvard food waste conference in 2016, also continues to expand. During the conference, it was announced that ReFED and the HFLPC have officially signed on as partners.

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