Grocery stores (and restaurants and schools) throw out a lot of food.
So much edible food is discarded that for 20 or 30 years now, there have been people who call themselves “freegans” who feed themselves entirely and at no cost by dumpster diving behind grocery stores. They find literally tons of packaged foods of every description that are past stamped dates but perfectly edible, as well as produce that is a bit past its prime but still tasty and healthful. (They mostly avoid more-worrisome refrigeration-needing animal foods, but almost-fresh baked goods can be fine.) They eat very well indeed, enjoying enough variety in their diets for both health and deliciousness.
That this is consistently possible is a crime and a shame.
The reason it happens has much to do with “sell by” dates stamped on packages by food manufacturers. It is clearly in food suppliers’ interest to sell as much product as possible, so suggesting that food be trashed after its first blush of perfect freshness works for them in two ways: good food is tossed by the store and more is bought; and it is thought that if consumers eat items at their very best they will be likelier to choose them again. The downside is obviously that completely edible food gets systematically wasted by the ton. And freegans actually take only a tiny bite out of the mountains of rejected edibles.
Until now, this has been possible partly because the practice has been pretty much invisible to the general public, and partly because it has been unregulated. But we are now on the brink of being able to change that, due to some actual Congressional action.
HR4184 is a bill recently introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D – ME) which addresses the problem of food waste in many ways, including measures to reduce it on farms, in the retail and restaurant areas, in schools and other institutions, and at the level of consumers and infrastructure. If enacted, it would mandate:
Edible food sent by farmers to compost and food-to-energy digesters would be identified and sent instead to hunger-fighting organizations to become food for the needy.
Refrigerated vehicles would be be added the list of acceptable storage facilities for food not sold by farmers (making it possible to preserve such produce for consumption).
Studies would be made to determine how long food can be safely stored and how much is really thrown out, and to recommend tactics for reducing waste.
Tax breaks for donating good unused food to food pantries, either as inventory loss or as charitable donations, would be expanded so as to encourage using rather than trashing those items.
A new Food Recovery Office would be established within the USDA to coordinate programs to measure and reduce food waste.
The House of Representatives and Senate would be required to reduce waste in their own eateries.
Farm-to-school grants would be funded to facilitate both getting good local produce to schools and also to get school food waste back to on-farm composting operations.
School lunch procurement operations would be directed to start including off-size and oddly-shaped produce.
Package dating would be regularized such that the only language permitted would be “Best if used by…” immediately followed with identical visibility by “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only.” The words “sell by,” “use by,” “best by,” expires on,” and other similar language would be banned. Appropriate modification to this would be mandated for “high-risk foods” such as foods sold ready-to-eat and foods that have a high risk of microbial contamination if not eaten promptly (i.e., meat, dairy, eggs from hens fed routine antibiotics, etc.)
Money would be authorized for national media campaigns to inform the public about food waste and how to reduce it.
Resources would be increased for community facilities for composting and for food-waste-to-energy operations after all still-edible food is sent to food pantries.
In short, this is a pretty comprehensive bill which would, if passed into law, make huge strides towards greatly reducing food waste. The trick will be getting enough support to move it through the legislative process and actually pass it in the House, as well as to repeat that whole process from introduction to passage in the Senate.
For a start, you can phone the US Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask for your congresspeople by name. Or you can computer-search their websites and email them. Ask Representatives to cosponsor the Food Recovery Act, HR4184; ask your Senators to introduce or cosponsor a companion bill in the Senate.
Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley