The mind-boggling amount of food Americans throw away is the kind of problem that seems ripe for nationwide reform. But while federal legislation lingers in Congress, some states have found promising ways to keep edible items out of the trash.
As much as 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten, wasting resources and money, filling landfills and harming the environment. More urgently, there are millions of families who struggle to afford food, while there are mountains of it decaying in the trash.
But these states are changing that, using strategies to keep food out of landfills and get it to hungry families. Their policies signal that officials are recognizing the economic, social and environmental benefits that come with making food waste reduction a priority.
Here are a few of the states that are ahead of the curve on food waste, and what they’re doing about it.
Vermont is putting its foot down on food in the garbage.
In a few years, Vermont will allow exactly zero food to be thrown away ― whether you’re a restaurant chain filling dumpsters each week or just a guy clearing old food out of his fridge.
In 2012, the state took a close look at its trash, and found that over half of the material in landfills was recyclables and organic waste.
“That was a big wake-up call to us,” said Cathy Jamieson, a solid waste program manager for Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
That year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed its universal recycling law. It includes a ban on organic waste in landfills that will be phased in gradually, starting with companies that generate a large amount of food waste.
Instead of tossing food, businesses can donate anything salvageable to groups that serve meals to the needy. Between July 2015 and March 2016, 1.6 million pounds of excess food were donated to the Vermont Foodbank, nearly doubling donations in the previous 12 months, Jamieson said.
For food that cannot be donated, the state has been beefing up its infrastructure for more sustainable processing, including composting.
Composting is considered one of the last resorts for preventing food waste, but it’s still better than putting food in a landfill. Compost gives off carbon dioxide as the waste decomposes, but when food waste breaks down in landfills, it releases methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. And compost is actually put to productive use, acting as a natural fertilizer to improve soil on farms and elsewhere.
The final step of the law takes effect in 2020, requiring all individuals to separate and compost their food scraps. To prepare for the change, next year, garbage collectors that offer curbside pickup will be required to collect food waste as well. Trash drop-off sites and landfills will also have to accept compost.
Jamieson acknowledges that composting is a reach for some people, and plenty of apple cores will probably still end up in the trash.
“We knew we couldn’t have all the change happening at once. It’s not like a light switch, you can’t just turn it on,” Jamieson said. “I think with time, people will come on board.”
Massachusetts is equipping businesses with tools to cut down on food waste.
The state instituted a food waste ban in 2014 that prohibits businesses and institutions generating a ton or more of food waste weekly ― such as grocery stores, hospitals, colleges, breweries and larger restaurants ― from throwing food in the trash. So far, the law has been “really successful,” said Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Since Massachusetts’ new ban passed, the clinic has helped the state with implementation, trainings and creating guidelines on food donations for different industries.
What makes the state’s landfill ban particularly effective, Broad Leib said, is Massachusetts’ simultaneous investment in technical assistance to help waste generators, processors and municipalities reduce waste.
Massachusetts also offers a number of grants for waste diversion programs and funds RecylingWorks, a program that helps businesses figure out how to comply with the waste ban. In one town, RecyclingWorks got eight restaurants that aren’t subject to the ban to start composting.
Ohio has spent big to turn a farming problem into a food waste solution.
A surprising amount of waste occurs long before food gets to a grocery store. About 7 percent of planted fields aren’t harvested annually due to surpluses and other issues, according to a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report.
Instead of letting those crops rot, Ohio brings them to needy families.
The Ohio Food Purchase Agricultural Clearance Program is a 17-year-old partnership between the state’s food bank network and over 100 farmers. The program receives over $9 million in state funding annually, an amount much higher than the few similar programs in other states.
When farmers have surplus crops, they get reimbursed to pick, pack and deliver produce to food banks. It gives the agriculture industry an economic boost while getting fresh, healthy food to families in need.
Early estimates suggest that in the 2015 fiscal year, the program helped farms distribute over 40 million pounds of food ― or about 33 million meals ― according to Erin Wright, the program’s manager.
California is using several different strategies to reduce food waste.
By 2020, the state wants 75 percent of waste that would previously end up in landfills to instead be reduced, recycled or composted.
The state’s Farm to Family program is similar to the partnership in Ohio, though without direct state funding. The program brought more than 100 million pounds of farmers’ extra crops to food banks last year. The state offers tax incentives to farmers who donate produce and the haulers who transport it to nonprofits.
An organic waste ban like the one in Massachusetts also went into effect this year, and cities are required to create organic waste recycling programs.
Your State Next
While these four states have some of the strongest programs to reduce food waste, they’re not alone. A few other states have landfill bans; at least eight states encourage food donations with tax incentives; and more than 20 states have farm-to-food bank programs.
Others are hopping on the bandwagon.
“States are coming to us, saying, ‘We want to do something on food waste,’” said Broad Leib, the Harvard food policy expert.
Later this year, Broad Leib and her colleagues are publishing a toolkit to help state governments understand and implement policies that reduce food waste. For now, it’s unclear how much money or energy states will be willing to spend, or if more drastic policies will really catch on.
Jamieson from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, at least, is encouraged by early results of her state’s landfill ban, like a 5 percent reduction in municipal solid waste from 2014 to 2015.
“One of the things that actually surprised us ― even us ― was the amount of food rescue that is occurring already, due to the law,” she said. “I think that shows people’s willingness to do the right thing.”
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