The Food Donation Improvement Act (FDIA) made headlines in January when President Biden signed it into law, but you may wonder why it was necessary. Don’t businesses already donate unsold food? Unfortunately, due to confusing laws and liability concerns, significantly more food is wasted than donated.
Food is lost or wasted during every step of the process from farm to fork. From unharvested produce left rotting in the fields to uneaten food left rotting in our refrigerators, 40% of the food produced in the United States goes to waste every year, much of it still perfectly safe to eat. Most of this waste happens during the final stages of distribution and consumption, meaning in grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, and of course our homes.
While some of this food gets composted or donated, a large portion of it ends up in our garbage cans and dumpsters, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all landfill waste. As this food rots, it slowly emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that traps more heat in our atmosphere over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide. In addition, the water, energy, and emissions that went into producing, packaging, and transporting that food are also wasted.
Making Donations Safe for Business?
We know how we unintentionally waste food in our own homes, but why would grocery stores and restaurants throw away safe and healthy food instead of donating it? The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 was passed to address this issue, but it contained some unfortunate flaws that hindered its ability to help people who are experiencing food insecurity.
One glaring issue was the lack of clarity regarding liability protections to shield businesses from lawsuits should someone become sick from donated food. As a result, many businesses deemed it safer to throw excess food away than risk litigation and the bad press that would inevitably come with it. Unfortunately, much of such discarded food is shelf-stable food that’s perfectly edible, but past its “best by” date. This date does not indicate when food is safe, it is only an indicator of peak flavor or quality.
Another problem was that the law only applied to free food. Yet discount supermarkets are essential to help Americans who experience food insecurity, but don’t qualify for government assistance, get nutritional food. Often operated by nonprofits, such stores obtain many of their significantly discounted products from growers and manufacturers that may not have met the stringent quality and aesthetic standards of the larger chain stores. But these foods are still perfectly healthy and safe to eat.
Emerson Act Legacy
These flaws prevented the previous law from being as successful as legislators had hoped. Over 20 years after its implementation, only 3.5% of surplus food was donated in 2019. Meanwhile, the Universal Recycling law in Vermont that banned food scrap waste altogether resulted in a nearly 40% increase in food donations across the state from 2015 to 2016. This immediate growth of donations in Vermont reflects how much healthy food was being previously tossed, showing there was not a food shortage but a distribution issue. When effective legislation helps to reduce barriers and promote food donation, more healthy surplus food can reach the over 53 million people who seek out food banks for assistance.
Expanding Protections, Clarifying Guidelines
The new FDIA expands liability protections to cover food that discount supermarkets sell at much-reduced prices as well as food donations that go directly to those in need. Previously, the protections applied to only food donations to nonprofits that distributed the food free of charge. The FDIA will make it possible for people in need to pick up food donations directly from stores, restaurants, or even schools. The new law also requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to clarify its food donation guidelines regarding business liability, including resolving the issue of confusing “best by” dates.
How You Can Help
With the expansion of protections and reduced liability concerns, more food will, ideally, make it into the homes of those in need. Such an increase in donations could result in a need for more help at food banks and other food rescue organizations such as those that glean excess food left in fields post-harvest. The Food Rescue Locator can connect you with organizations that need volunteers in your city or state. From stocking shelves at a food pantry to picking up donated food from businesses to volunteering as a group to sort and pack donations, there are many ways you can help. Organizations may welcome high schoolers as well (usually with adult supervision), allowing students to earn their volunteer hours serving their own communities.
Potential for More Improvements
The FDIA is a great step in the right direction toward alleviating food insecurity and food waste. We can all still advocate for more change. On the government level, better food labeling standards could eliminate confusion between quality versus safety. Grocery stores’ heavy focus on aesthetics for produce results in slightly wonky but perfectly healthy food going to waste. So, let your representatives know you want improvements to USDA labeling standards. And buy that goofy apple or crooked carrot when shopping to reduce waste and inspire change.
About the Author
Sara Dandy is a freelance writer and native Michigander now living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Her love of nature was instilled at a young age by her granola-crunchy, hippie mother. After returning to school to focus on communication and environmental studies at the University of Washington, she is now gearing her career toward sharing sustainability and climate-change-related issues with more than just her exasperated friends and family.