Climate

Americans Waste Billions Of Tons Of Food. This Congresswoman Is Doing Something About It.

CREDIT: Chellie Pingree

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME).

Food waste is a big problem in the United States — nearly 40 percent of the food produced in the country is wasted each year, costing consumers $161 billion annually. A lot of that waste also tends to end up in landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide.

When people hear those statistics, they tend to feel an urge to act — according to a poll by the American Chemistry Council, 70 percent of Americans are bothered by the amount of food wasted in the country.

Earlier this year, the USDA and EPA teamed up to release the country’s first official national goal for reducing food waste, hoping to cut food waste in half by 2030. Still, despite widespread public support for addressing food waste, it’s an issue that has largely been championed by businesses and activists rather than politicians.

Now, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) is trying to change that. On Dec. 7, Pingree introduced the Food Recovery Act, a comprehensive bill that seeks to address food waste from the farm to table.

“We wanted … to have people be able to talk about all ways of looking at the problem, from restaurants and at home to municipalities and government,” Pingree told ThinkProgress. “We want to give people a chance to understand it better, how much food in this country is wasted, what they can do as individuals, what we can do to help.”

The bill contains nearly two dozen provisions aimed at curbing food waste across the entire economy, from farm-level waste to food that is wasted at restaurants.

At the consumer level, one of the easiest things to do, Pingree said, would be to reevaluate the “Best By” labels included on most food products.

“That’s one of those things that over time you get used to having on anything you buy, but most people don’t realize there is no corresponding science to what the date is,” Pingree said. Currently, there are no federal laws regulating the dates that can be used on products. Under the bill’s provision, companies wanting to print a “Best By” label would need to include the words “Manufacturer’s suggestion only” in letters of equal size to the “Best By” date.

At the farm level, Pingree’s bill would support the installation of anaerobic digesters on rural farms, which could help turn crop waste into energy, and would also incentivize composting at the farm level. The bill also calls for a deeper study of the incidence of food waste that happens at the farm level, since food waste that happens on the farm is notoriously difficult to track. The USDA does not keep track of post-harvest food waste data, and most studies have been, until now, anecdotal, with numbers and practices ranging from farmer to farmer. An NRDC investigation that looked at post-harvest waste in California found numbers as low as 1 percent and as high as 30 percent, but food waste activists argue that strict cosmetic standards required by supermarkets lead farmers to throw away a great deal of nutritious but aesthetically imperfect produce.

Pingree’s bill would also support restaurants, grocery stores, and schools in cutting food waste, by expanding tax credits for grocery stores that want to donate leftover products and establishing an Office of Food Recovery meant to coordinate federal programs to measure and reduce food waste.

“We see [food waste] as an economic issue, a humanitarian issue, an environmental issue,” Pingree said. “This is one of those things where everyone’s grandma told them not to waste food. It’s not partisan.”

Pingree said that she hopes to pass some of the bill’s provisions before the session ends for the year — the tax breaks for farms and businesses that donate unused produce, for instance, could end up in a tax extender bill making its way through Congress. For the rest of the bill, Pingree hopes to break it down provision by provision and work to enact them individually.

“A lot of our goal is to get a public dialogue going,” she said. “It’s a popular issue, people are interested in it, and sometimes they just want to know what they should do.”