In 2010, the United States estimated the value of food wasted that year at 161 billion USD, comprising nearly one-quarter of all food produced in the United States (USDA, 2020). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate is the approximate fair market value of the food wasted. This value does not include the cost of transportation from the farm to a retailer or from the retailer to the landfill, and the cost of maintaining said landfills, the cumulative cost of resources expended to grow the food, and all other intricate supply chain costs associated with food waste. Currently, there is no federal requirement, mandate, law, or code to divert apparently wholesome food from landfills and dumps. While millions of pounds of food are wasted, millions of Americans remain food insecure. Every year since 2008 food insecurity has affected at least 10% of the population, which was approximately 35 million Americans in 2019 (USDA, 2020). If food insecurity could be mitigated by diverting a percentage of the food wasted annually, then those existing resources should be mobilized.
Food insecurity drastically rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. US adults without children typically have higher food security rates than the national average, however in 2020 a United States Census Bureau survey of 63,000 US residents estimated adults facing food insecurity reached 10% and more than 32% of adults reported not receiving adequate nutrition. According to the National Institutes of Health, 14% of families, including 13 million children, were already food insecure, and COVID-19 halted many traditional avenues for receiving and using benefits and other means of mitigating food insecurity (NIH, 2020). As COVID-19 necessitated lockdowns across the US, state and local governments scrambled to create online sign-ups for federal food assistance programs, and over 30 states announced their online portals in 2020 (USCB, 2020; NIH, 2020). While more and more Americans faced food insecurity, even more wholesome food was being wasted. Americans were shocked as images of humongous piles of potatoes being wasted and fields of vegetables being plowed over were broadcasted on the news (Business Insider, 2020; NY Times, 2020). A lack of infrastructure to mitigate product dumping and a shortage of labor to harvest produce due to the pandemic led to tons of additional food waste.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits continue to be insufficient in closing the food insecurity gap; donation to emergency food providers serving those facing food insecurity is crucial, especially in the face of an ongoing pandemic. Since there is plenty of wholesome food ending up in landfills throughout the country due to infrastructural issues and a lack of public policy, emphasis should be placed upon incentivizing the donation of food because currently it is far easier to dump food and write-off an inventory loss without repercussions.
About 3 million tons of food are donated out of the total 229 million tons produced and 151 million tons consumed. More than one-third of food produced in the United States is wasted, leaving 54 million tons of food as garbage. Food waste makes up 24% of our landfill inputs, putting a drain on finite resources like agricultural freshwater and 14% of farmland. In 2019, food waste in landfills alone accounted for 258 billion USD (refed.org, 2020). Fortunately, in some states, laws are changing in order to alter the equitability of food access by encouraging donation and placing more restrictions on waste.
The existing federal legislation protects food donations from any organization to any non-profit organization. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, the federal legislation that protects those donating food in good faith, cannot be superseded by any local jurisdiction. It protects non-profits which serve food and donors to those organizations from liability regarding food that is donated in good faith. Food donated in this way can be recorded as a charitable donation instead of a loss. Unfortunately, the existence of protections and tax incentives has not been enough to encourage major producers within the supply chain to donate their food waste.
With this, California and New York have both passed laws requiring major food producers and retailers that have more than two tons of food waste must donate their excess food and recycle any food scraps (ca.gov; ny.gov, 2020). California, the largest agricultural producer in the United States, in the midst of a water crisis, is aware that one of the largest drains on their infrastructure is the discrepancy between their agricultural production and waste (CDFA, 2020). Since the state produces significantly more food than its population consumes, is a net exporter of agricultural products globally, and still has 14 million people facing food insecurity, the waste problem lies in the existing supply chain.
California’s SB 1383 has two phases of action. The first, which takes effect January 1, 2022, will require food producers, including wholesalers, supermarkets, distributors, and food service providers, to donate all excess wholesome grocery products to non-profit organizations. The focus of the initial phase targets rescuing fresh food, produce, and shelf-stable items. The second phase focuses on larger caterers and producers who have existing prepared meals which require more infrastructure or special handling.
“SB 1383 requires certain food businesses to donate the maximum amount of edible food they would otherwise dispose of, to food recovery organizations. The law phases food donors in under two tiers. The first tier is required to donate starting in 2022. The second tier is required to donate starting in 2024.”
New York State developed a nearly identical policy to take effect at the same time as California’s first phase of SB1383. New York’s legislation notably does not require “hospitals, nursing homes, adult care facilities, K-12 schools, and farms” to donate their food waste.
“Effective January 1, 2022, the NYS Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law requires businesses and institutions that generate an annual average of two tons of wasted food per week or more must:
1. donate excess edible food; and
2. recycle all remaining food scraps if they are within 25 miles of an organics recycler (composting facility, anaerobic digester, etc.)”
Food insecurity is obviously not limited to the United States, nor is the global supply chain separate from global politics. The health and economic crisis of COVID-19 did not inspire a push for a global safety net, nor a national one. The pandemic exacerbated all of the problems that the existing food system was facing, seldom producing new solutions. SB1383 in California and the New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law are excellent first steps in creating protections to fill the gaps in the food system. However, protections are one action, the actual change in access comes from producers having efficient means of transporting food to emergency food providers, such as food banks and food pantries.
A 2017 study from Syracuse University found that, “the recovery and redirection of an additional 15% of the present stock of edible food waste would meet 35% of the caloric needs of all Americans living in a food insecure household or very low food security household” (Walia and Sanders, 2017). As demonstrated by this study, the mitigation of food waste and food insecurity can go hand-in-hand, if public policies and private actions prioritized it. There is limited impact that can be made without action from players within the existing food system and legislators advocating for sustainability policies like those in New York and California. The rest has to be taken up by individuals and groups who care enough to use those policies to their advantage to shape a better system. If our society collectively decides to act, both public and private, to make sure that wholesome food goes to those who need it, and not into landfills, we could feed more and waste less.
Project Coordinator and Policy Researcher