Don’t Waste the Moment

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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The House Agriculture Committee is hardly known for bipartisan action. And yet, on May 25, members on both sides of the aisle were ostentatiously pronouncing themselves ready to work together. “There are only winners in this deal,” declared the House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas. “The pieces of this are right out there,” said David Scott, D-Ga., the committee’s ranking minority member. “We just have to reach out and grab it.”

What issue is uniting our normally fractious representatives?

Ending food waste.

It actually makes sense. In the United States, 40 percent of food, or 80 billion pounds, is tossed out annually at a cost of $100 billion. Over the last several years, slashing food waste has become a culinary cause célèbre: California entrepreneurs now sell ugly fruits and vegetables at discount prices. Chef Dan Barber raised national awareness of the shocking problem with WastED, a three-week pop-up restaurant in 2015 that served, among other things, delicious renditions of broken razor clams, skate cartilage and cheese whey. Last month, the condiment company Sir Kensington’s introduced a vegan mayonnaise made with a waste product, chickpea water.

The federal government, though, is not usually so quick to jump on a trend. But there is clearly something un-American about the idea of wasting food, and it’s resonating even in gridlocked Washington. In September 2015, the USDA and EPA announced the first-ever food-waste reduction goal: 50 percent by 2030. This spring, the House and Senate introduced sweeping bipartisan legislation to slash food waste that includes clarifying sell-by dates on consumer packaging and making it easier for farms, grocery stores and restaurants to donate surplus food. (Congress has only some 50 working days left before the end of its session—so the food-waste bill, an excellent one, isn’t likely to get a vote.)

The momentum to stop food waste surprised even experienced politicos. But the House hearing and a subsequent White House gathering on the topic prove that it is a rare opportunity to get something done. “Republicans and Democrats are looking for Farm Bill issues that appeal to both sides of the aisle," said Tom Colicchio, the New York restaurateur and founder of Food Policy Action Education Fund, who joined a delegation of chefs and activists that lobbied lawmakers on the topic last month. "Food-waste reduction is definitely one of those issues.”

Or as Chairman Conaway put it: “I don’t know too many people who are in favor of food waste.”

How can food reformers seize the moment? Here are three pieces of advice:

Unite to reduce food waste: One of the great strengths of the food movement is its diversity. But that is also a weakness. Ask a dozen food activists what political change they want to see and you’ll get a dozen answers—maybe more. Food waste may not be everyone’s number-one priority, but it is something that everyone can get behind because it tackles so many problems at once. According to ReFED, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits seeking to end food waste, simply standardizing date labels would keep 398,000 tons of food out of landfills, slash greenhouse gas emissions by 1.56 million tons and save as much as $2.9 billion annually. Meanwhile, investing in technology to match food donors with anti-hunger organizations would divert 150,000 tons of waste from landfills, reduce greenhouse gases by 555,000 tons and provide 250 million meals for America’s needy. Whatever your cause—reversing climate change, boosting the economy, stopping hunger—targeting food waste can help.

Frame the issue right: The House Agriculture Committee’s hearing demonstrated a bipartisan interest in food waste. But the allure for most lawmakers is its potential to create jobs or fight hunger. These are issues they understand, issues they can run on, even in conservative districts. The smart way to talk about food waste is as a way to aid rural populations, or to support food banks and the 45 million Americans who rely on food assistance such as SNAP. The environmental benefits are real. But highlighting them is not the way to get legislation through Congress.

Work with industry: Consumers are responsible for the lion’s share of food waste: the average family of four wastes $1,560 worth of food annually. During the hearing, it was clear lawmakers were keen to back consumer-education campaigns. This is important. Fixing food waste requires a cultural shift, an understanding and acceptance that throwing away food has huge, global impacts. Yet I couldn’t help but think that a focus on consumers also saved lawmakers from making demands on farms and food manufacturers, which also have a key role to play.

But food waste is an issue that corporations actually want to work on. Congress needs to know that. Food giant Nestle, for example, already has committed to adding zero waste to landfills by 2020. In June 2016, a coalition of businesses introduced a framework to standardize what counts as food waste and how companies can manage the problem. Food waste offers activists an opportunity to work with industry and build a foundation for future partnerships.

Sadly, pragmatism does not reign in Washington. So it is incumbent on food activists to seize opportunities when they arise. Food waste is one of them. Let’s not waste it.