August 30, 2018 Feature

Creating a Systemic Solution for Food Waste through the Farm Bill

By Laurie Ristino, Emily Spiegel, and Nico Lustig

A fundamental hurdle to solving our current environmental problems is their complexity. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in our food system. Agriculture is the primary source of nonpoint source water pollution, a leading contributor to greenhouse gases, and an enormous consumer of natural resources. Our current agriculture and food system likewise contributes to the public health problem of food insecurity. Solving our seemingly intractable environmental issues requires a systems approach, which works by addressing the component causes of social problems and the linkages between them. Although systems solutions are more challenging to execute, they are more durable because they address the root causes of harms.

In this article, we propose a systems-based solution—a block grant program—to address a primary cause of food waste, which is an environmental problem with multiple social ramifications. In the first part of this article, we provide background on the related issues of food waste, food insecurity, and environmental harms. In the following section, we propose a new program to address these multiple harms, using the unique legislative vehicle of the current farm bill process. We end the article with our conclusions.

Food waste is a global problem of epidemic proportions. Food waste refers to the discarding, or loss, of edible, safe, and nutritious food for human consumption. In short, food waste occurs when edible food “is not consumed for any reason.” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Office of the Chief Economist, Frequently Asked Questions, www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced on the planet for human consumption is lost or wasted. USDA’s Economic Research Service counts up to 40 percent of the annual American food supply as food waste, which the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates is equivalent to 400 pounds of food per person, per year at a cost to the U.S. economy of $218 billion or 1.3 percent of GDP annually. Dana Gunders et al., Natural Resources Defense Council, Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, 4 (2d ed. 2017).

To put the cost of food waste into perspective, compare it to expenditures authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. Agric. Act of 2014, Pub. L. No. 113-79, 128 Stat. 649 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 7 U.S.C.). The Congressional Budget Office estimated the direct operating cost for the 2014 Farm Bill at $489 billion for a five-year period, or an average of $98 billion annually. Congress anticipated spending this amount for the total cost of all specific provisions in the different titles—for example, nutrition programs set forth in Title IV receive 80 percent of the mandatory funding, while rural development efforts (prescribed by Title VI) receive less than one percent of the bill’s funding. See USDA, ERS Projected Spending Under the 2014 Farm Bill, available at www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-commodity-policy/projected-spending-under-the-2014-farm-bill. Each year in the United States, the economic loss from food waste is more than double farm bill spending. By purposely addressing the food waste epidemic, Congress could make the 2018 Farm Bill—the expected reissuance of this omnibus legislation—a tool for reducing unnecessary costs in the food system, while minimizing environmental harms and improving pathways for food security.

Food insecurity occurs when the resources to access food are missing, causing one or more members of a household to reduce and change eating patterns. In 2016, the USDA reported more than 15.6 million households in the United States experienced food insecurity. USDA, Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2016, available at www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#foodsecure. Even as enormous volumes of good food go to waste, the food-insecure population is growing.

In the nutrition title of the farm bill, Congress provides programs designed to address food insecurity and to provide essential nutrition relief (including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants, and Children; and the National School Lunch Program). Pub. L. No. 113-79, 128 Stat. 649, 782–832 (2014) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 7 U.S.C. & 42 U.S.C.). These programs fill an important role, but they are not enough to cure the expanding systemic stresses of food insecurity. However, if just one-third of wasted or lost food was recovered and diverted before landfilling, there would be enough food available to feed the 42 million Americans who regularly face food insecurity. Gunders et al., supra at 4. Diverting food from the waste stream to food-insecure people has the added benefit of not requiring increased agricultural production—with its associated increased environmental impacts—to achieve the goal of food security for more people.

Producing food that is not consumed harms the environment. Agricultural production uses “up to 16 percent of U.S. energy, almost half of all U.S. land and account[s] for 67 percent of the nation’s freshwater use.” Id. at 5. Each year more forest land is cleared for agriculture, more powerful chemicals are sprayed to increase production, and more water and energy are consumed to produce foods that end up in landfills. When fresh food that is harvested or processed finally gets to consumers, there is a limited time to prepare and eat the food before it spoils. An estimated 43 percent of food brought into a household is not consumed but landfilled. Id. at 10. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food waste accounts for more than 20 percent of the mass in landfills. In 2014 alone, the EPA found that more than 38 million tons of food waste were generated, almost all of it going to landfills. EPA, Sustainable Management of Food Basics, available at www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics. Landfilled food creates ripe conditions for methane production, leading to hazardous emissions impacts. Landfilled food is compacted, creating anaerobic environments that turn food waste into methane as a byproduct of decomposition. Methane is a devastatingly potent greenhouse gas. Thus, food waste increases agriculture’s net negative impact on climate change.

Landfilled food waste is an important part of the environmental problem, but not all wasted food ends up in a landfill. Significant quantities of consumable foods are abandoned in the fields. These losses occur when farmers choose not to harvest foods because it is too expensive to pick the crops or the fruits of the harvest do not meet the quality standards set by the food industry. This results in farms leaving 16 percent of the food they grow to rot in the fields. Id. The two main sources of food waste in the supply chain occur at the point of production (on farms) or at the point of consumption (in households, grocery stores, and restaurants). Gunders et al., supra at 10. In this article, our proposal focuses on reducing food waste at the production stage. However, it is important to consider both sources of food waste as interacting components of an overall system—a system that also affects how much nutritious food is available to low-income people. Efforts to reduce food waste at either stage of the supply chain have ripple effects throughout the food system, which can improve or exacerbate problems of food insecurity.

Current Food Waste Reduction Initiatives

To tackle the growing food waste issue, the EPA created the Food Recovery Hierarchy tool to help organizations minimize food waste by prioritizing key actions. EPA, Food Recovery Hierarchy, available at www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy. The hierarchy first proposes source reduction as the most desirable strategy for reducing food waste. For consumers and retailers, the recommendation is essentially to buy no more food than necessary. For the consumers, retailers, and restaurants who purchase and prepare food, source reduction is an essential step for diverting consumption-stage food waste from landfills. By tracking food waste and making deliberate purchasing choices, consumers can reduce the waste they generate.

Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a collaborative initiative of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute, and the National Restaurant Association, released their first food waste data analysis in 2013. This landmark report found 48 billion pounds of waste across all sectors in 2011. The retailers and wholesalers surveyed reported sending only 8 percent of this amount to landfills, amounting to 4.1 billion pounds. At the time of this first survey, the retailers and wholesalers donated 1.37 billion pounds of food for human consumption. The lion’s share of their food waste went to animal feed or compost, 42.5 billion pounds in total. See BSR, Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers, and Wholesalers (April 2013), available at www.foodwastealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/fwra_bsr_tier2_final.pdf. After the data was collected the Alliance committed to reducing waste, with some participating grocery store chains committing to achieving zero waste. See GMA, A Focus on Food Waste, available at www.gmaonline.org/resources/executive-update/a-focus-on-food-waste.

The Alliance’s commitment to source reduction supports the goals of EPA’s food recovery hierarchy. Achieving zero waste is a commendable goal with clear environmental benefits for reducing food waste in landfills. However, any change within a system has ramifications in other parts of that system. Food banks and other charitable organizations have traditionally relied on the donations from supermarkets to serve the growing food needs. With some chain stores aiming for zero waste, many community institutions that provide supplemental food assistance are left scrambling for alternative sources of donations. The 1.37 billion pounds of food diverted from these stores have filled a gap in the food assistance system. See BSR, Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers, and Wholesalers, supra. Following the industry commitment to reduce waste at the source, some food banks and other food security organizations feel pinched. Grocery stores have become more sophisticated with their purchasing, employing “order to shelf” inventory techniques that reduce the overall quantity of food purchased, thus reducing food waste and food purchasing costs. These supply chain practices improve stores’ profits by shrinking waste at the point of wholesale purchase, but they dry up the supply of donations directed to food banks.

The second tier in the EPA food recovery hierarchy is to feed people. This action calls for diverting safe, edible food to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters before sending the food to landfills. As observed in grocery stores, this is currently happening at the retail level, but as retail supply chains grow more efficient, there is less unsold food to direct to food banks.

Looking instead to the point of production, the recommendation to “feed people” with diverted food waste is often interpreted as a call for gleaning. Gleaning is the ancient practice of “collect[ing] crops from farmers’ fields that have already been mechanically harvested or harvesting crops that are not economically or logistically feasible for the farmer to harvest.” Laurie J. Beyranevand, Amber Leasure-Earnhardt, & Rebecca Valentine, The National Gleaning Project: Guide to the Online Gleaning Resources Hub, 7 Ctr. for Agric. and Food Systems, Vt. Law Sch. (May 2015).

The emergency food programs that rely on such donations act more as a bandage for the country’s nutrition crisis than a holistic, systemic solution. Gleaning is commendable, but it is insufficient to address the complexities of the problem. Food donations alone are not going to satisfy the tremendous need of food-insecure households, nor do they provide income for farmers, who often face serious financial hardships of their own.

Furthermore, policy measures to promote gleaning generally fail to address the larger system that perpetuates waste and hunger. These measures are often tax incentives for farmers who donate gleaned crops such as those available in Colorado, Iowa, and Oregon. Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 39-22-301, 536 (2016); Iowa Code §§ 190b.101-106 (2016); Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 315.154, 315.156 (2016); see also I.R.C. § 170(e)(3) (2012); Carrie Scrufari & Sarah Munger, Reducing Food Insecurity and Food Waste, Ctr. for Agric. and Food Systems, Vt. Law Sch. (Aug. 2017), at 10-11. They are appealing because they can increase food donations without directly spending public money. But that approach has several shortcomings. First, although farmers and gleaning organizations may benefit from tax deductions or credits from these donations, the tax benefit will not likely come close to compensating farmers for the actual cost of the crop. Second, such tax incentives tend to be more useful for people who are already wealthier (because the wealthy pay more in taxes), thus accruing benefits of the policies to the people who need them the least. (Some gleaning tax benefit schemes may also be undercut now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has introduced disincentives for individuals to itemize charitable deductions by increasing the standard deduction.) Perhaps most importantly, such policies further entrench the notion that feeding the hungry is properly left to the charitable inclinations of the well-off, rather than assumed as a societal obligation. Absent other policy solutions, these incentives are better than nothing, but we can and should do better to solve our food waste and food insecurity problems.

Under the current food system’s model, which encourages food waste at the point of production, at least four stakeholders are losing out. Farmers are missing out on revenue from some of the crops they produce, either because they are ripe at a time when prices are too low to be worth harvesting, or because they are too ugly to be sold in regular market channels. Food-insecure people are struggling to access adequate nutritious food, while crops that would fit that bill ripen and rot in the ground. Organizations serving food-insecure people expend great time and effort to access reliable and affordable food streams for their clients––sometimes including gleaning––but find it difficult to maintain reliable and affordable sources. Lastly, the environment is affected because inputs like irrigation water, fertilizer, and pesticides are used on crops that never become human nourishment.

These problems are solvable, we believe, through the adoption of a systems-based approach that considers each of these stakeholder concerns. We propose a measure to reduce food waste at the point of production, while simultaneously compensating for the loss in food donations occurring because of consumption-stage food waste reduction.

Strengthening Local Food Market Ventures Block Grant

The most powerful policy vehicle we have that addresses food system problems at the environmental and economic nexus is the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill, which is currently up for reauthorization, covers a raft of issues, including “food stamps,” conservation, rural development, energy, and forestry. The very breadth of the bill makes it prone to policy inconsistencies; however, by the same token, its broad scope makes it fertile ground for system-based solutions.

Consequently, we propose for inclusion in the 2018 Farm Bill a new block grant program with the purpose of empowering communities to address the constellation of social issues surrounding food waste. As we discuss further below, our proposal is designed to leverage government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) funding, while spurring local innovation tailored to on-the-ground conditions. To illustrate the kind of community-level change we think is possible to scale nationally, we briefly discuss two successful initiatives.

For decades, farmers in the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts cultivated shade-grown tobacco for cigars. As the domestic tobacco industry declined, many tobacco farmers sold parcels of land to new vegetable farmers in the region or transitioned their fields into specialty crops (e.g., carrots, peppers, and broccoli). In 2001, the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center (FPC) opened to meet the changing needs of the region’s growing population of new farmers. A project of the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC), which creates businesses and jobs for communities of low- and moderate-income people, the FPC has evolved to create the kind of entrepreneurial solutions that solve interlocking social issues. About the Franklin County CDC, available at http://fccdc.org/about/.

At first, the FPC provided business support to farmers to create value-added products with surplus and cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables. This spurred the creation of gourmet pickle, sauce, and jam products. Then, after nearly a decade of operation, the FCCDC created an extended season project, Pioneer Valley Vegetable Venture, to grow FPC’s revenue stream and maintain its community relevance. Under the project, farmers deliver thousands of pounds of excess and end-of-season crops (when the prices are lower because of saturated markets), including cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables. FPC purchases the excess produce directly from farmers for light processing, such as canning or freezing. Donor infrastructure investments in food processing and freezer space have made FPC’s work possible. The FCCDC sells the processed food from the extended season project to community institutions: schools, universities, and hospitals, where many meals are served for free or reduced prices. Franklin County Community Development Corporation, About the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, available at http://fccdc.org/food-processing/.

Through local innovation, this community could address the interlocking social issues we described above: reducing food waste, creating additional revenue for farmers, growing the local economy, and providing locally grown fruits and vegetables to schools and other community institutions. To launch these enterprises, however, the community entities had to cobble together federal (including farm bill), state, and private philanthropic funds—a daunting task.

Another example of a successful local program that reduces food waste, feeds the hungry, and provides a revenue stream for farmers is run by the innovative Vermont NGO Salvation Farms. Salvation Farms saw the decline in contributions to food pantries from traditional sources like grocery stores and addressed the resulting gap by connecting food pantries to unharvested, fresh food that would otherwise rot in the fields. The organization began a pilot gleaning program using prison labor to lightly process gleaned food for distribution to those in need. Salvation Farms has now evolved its gleaning operation to develop its own facility where it engages in “agricultural surplus management” to support a food-resilient Vermont. The organization uses philanthropic donations to pay farmers for the agricultural seconds and leverages volunteers and partnerships to help run the enterprise. Salvation Farms, Programs, available at www.salvationfarms.org/programs.html#gleaning (last visited June 20, 2018).

We can encourage and empower such community-based solutions by structuring federal programs in a way that leverages local investment and supports social entrepreneurism. The farm bill is an excellent vehicle to do so, given its funding mechanism, breadth, and emphasis on rural economies through the rural development title. Consequently, we propose a block grant program funded through the Rural Development title to support local farm economies and healthy communities. A block grant structure allows for solution making tailored to local conditions and fosters innovation, while leveraging state, local, and private funding. The program would make block grants available to states, which would then allocate funds to locally led initiatives that propose to address a suite of interconnected social issues related to food security. The local initiatives would need to address three main areas: (1) building local economies, (2) reducing on-farm food waste, and (3) feeding the hungry and vulnerable populations. To that end, federal funds could be used for, among other things: farmer payment for a “seconds” harvest of crops that are commercially nonviable; processing, storage, and distribution for the purpose of feeding food-insecure or vulnerable populations, including through institutions such as food banks, schools, senior centers, nursing homes, and correctional facilities; and initiatives that build the local workforce and skills related to the creation and maintenance of an agriculture surplus management system.

As noted above, a grant program requires some amount of matching by grantees to stretch public dollars and increase philanthropic investment, but relieves the pressure on communities having to rely solely on donations and local philanthropic dollars. This kind of flexibility is particularly helpful when communities are trying to solve complicated, interrelated issues—like hunger, poverty, and food waste. In addition, the farm bill is an advantageous vehicle for such a program because it both authorizes and—for many of its programs—allocates funding, generally avoiding the uncertainty of the annual appropriations process.

Guiding Policy Principles

To determine the policy sideboards of the proposed block grant program, the experience of other communities is instructive in reflecting the range of community needs and experiences. In the main, the policy requirements should be fairly broad so that communities may use funding in a manner that best fits their needs. For example, as previously noted, one key goal of the block grant program should be to create second or alternative markets that serve community members but do not compete in the primary marketplace. However, these alternative markets should generate revenue for producers and financially support processing and distributional infrastructure. That is, these markets should not rely solely on volunteerism and donations. This is important for several policy reasons referenced above. For example, farmers should be paid for their products, and these agricultural products should have market value. Otherwise, any program will just be perpetuating market distortions that allow good food to be wasted in the first place.

Indeed, the program’s policy sideboards should reflect a set of principles. First, the program should be designed to be accessible to the poorest communities, which feel the greatest impact from food insecurity. Second, funded initiatives should result in sustainable systems—both economically and environmentally. For example, the resurgence of gleaning as a practice to reduce food waste and feed the hungry is laudable. However, these operations mainly rely on donations from farmers, many of whom operate on razor thin margins and volunteer labor. Moreover, there is a moral question that arises from relying on the happenstance of food donations to feed the hungry in our wealthy country awash in food waste. These are problems that cry out for permanent solutions, anchored in vital local economies. Finally, the program should provide flexibility regarding how funds may be used—e.g., whether to pay for produce and infrastructure—to reduce barriers to local market creation.

Food waste is a pervasive problem in the American food system, but not an intractable one. Congress has an opportunity in the upcoming farm bill to institute a new model for reducing on-farm food waste. In the bargain, they can reduce food insecurity and strengthen rural economies. Our recommendation empowers communities to take the best impulses underlying current gleaning operations and turn them into systemic solutions that appropriately value farmers’ input. It directs federal, state, and local dollars to ensure that feeding the hungry is not a task left to the whims of private charity, but an integrated feature of community food systems. A block grant program would allow states and localities to develop food waste reduction systems that work best for them, while ensuring that farmers are reimbursed for their “seconds” harvests, and that those yields go where they are most needed. Empty fields after harvest should mean full pockets for farmers and full bellies for everyone.

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Laurie Ristino, Emily Spiegel, and Nico Lustig

Ms. Ristino is the director of and Ms. Spiegel is an assistant professor in the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School. Ms. Lustig is a law student and is pursuing a master’s degree in food and agriculture law and policy at Vermont Law School. They may be reached at lristino@vermontlaw.edu, espiegel@vermontlaw.edu, and nicolustig@vermontlaw.edu.