Keeping Food Out of Landfills: Policy Solutions for State & Local Governments



This June, four members of FRN National’s staff attended a dynamic workshop that focused on policy areas for food recovery. The day-long event was hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CFN) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. and was packed full of valuable information and discussions with individuals and organizations approaching food recovery from all angles. Speakers included Mark Winne (CFN), Ona Balkus (Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh, Council of the District of Columbia), David Manthos (West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition), Brenda Platt (Institute for Local Self-Reliance), Cheryl Kollin (Community Food Rescue), and Sameer Siddiqi (CFL). Research, law, and policy professionals answered questions about regulations and protections for food donation, and listened to stakeholder feedback in order to inform new recommendations and proposals. We left with reinvigorated ideas and community connections. Read on for an overview of the key policy areas for food recovery!

The following list briefly details the primary policy areas and recommended strategies discussed by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic for keeping food out of the landfill:

  1. Date Labeling

    With the exception of infant formula, there are no federal laws that regulate “Best By” or “Use By” dates on food sold in the US. Therefore, standards are currently at the discretion of states and manufacturers and vary widely. Lack of standardization leads to confusion amongst consumers, who can’t discern if a date label determines a food’s threshold for safety or quality, and throw it out prematurely. Policies at the state and local level that could help ameliorate this issue are: clarifying that “Best if used by” dates indicate a food’s quality, requiring “Use by” dates for foods that pose safety risks if consumed past date, allowing for the sale and donation of food past the quality date, and increasing consumer education about label standardization.
  2. Liability Protections

    Although the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects food donors and nonprofits from liability when donating food without gross negligence, these protections do not currently extend to food businesses that donate food directly to final recipients (bypassing a nonprofit meal service). To incentivize new and creative donation models, state and local governments should also extend these protections to organizations that sell donated food, and to businesses that donate directly to recipients rather than to a nonprofit middleman. States and local governments should also publish guidance to clarify these standards.  
  3. Tax Incentives

    Many businesses and farms that could potentially donate food do not because of the associated high costs. The Enhanced Federal Tax Incentive for Food Donation is an economical and cost-effective way to encourage these parties to donate unsold food by allowing them to recoup some of the cost of their donations; eleven states have passed additional incentives beyond the Federal Tax Incentive. Furthermore, states and local governments should structure the incentive as a tax credit, not a deduction, and extend the incentive to nonprofits that sell donated foods.
  4. School Food Waste

    Primary and secondary schools produce over 360,000 tons of food waste a year, yet few schools employ waste reduction or recovery strategies on their campuses. This is a missed opportunity for youth to learn about food waste issues and engage directly with solutions. School districts can use food waste as a learning opportunity by including students in food waste audits and creating post-consumer composting programs. Research suggests that school districts can also reduce food waste on their campuses by encourages practices such as: trayless dining, extended lunch and breakfast periods, scheduling lunch after recess, and more. The School Lunch Act explicitly allows school districts to donate leftover food, however most do not. Local governments and school districts should establish share tables, pop-up pantries, and donation programs, as well as provide funding for such programs and guidance for implementation.   
  5. Food Safety

    Food safety can act as a barrier to donation due to its sensitive nature and confusion over regulatory requirements on the part of nonprofits and business. Some of this confusion is due to the fact that the safety of food products is regulated at the state level, not the federal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established a Food Code that all states have adopted that details guidance and recommendations to prevent foodborne illness, but this code is not legally binding and does not provide guidance on safety concerns food donation. States can encourage donations while maintaining high standards for safety by incorporating specific rules for food donation into state regulations, educating health inspectors about food donation, and developing more resources to educate food donors.  
  6. Organic Waste Bans

    Almost all food waste ends up in landfills, consequently filling up a large percentage of the landfills themselves. This is problematic because landfills are very expensive, many are reaching capacity, and they produce the potent greenhouse gas methane as they decompose organic material. Five states have enacted organic waste bans or recycling programs to prevent food from reaching landfills. Local and state governments enacting these policies should provide funding for alternative processing programs, such as organics curbside collection, composting, anaerobic digestion, donation, and livestock feed, as well guidance for compliance.  
  7. Livestock

    Within the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, feeding food scraps to livestock  falls between recovery and composting. There are multiple federal laws that regulate the types of food that can be fed to animals; most prohibitions involve meat and animals by-products that have not been heat-treated in licensed facilities. State-specific regulations vary greatly in their restrictions. State and local governments should encourage livestock-feeding programs through public education and funding.

Want to learn more? Check out the Facebook Live screenings of the workshop here.