by Michael Fleischmann
Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported on the curious case of U.S. cheesemakers: they were sitting on a stockpile of almost 1.25 billion pounds of excess product, thanks to low milk prices and a general surplus of agricultural commodities. Stuck with a stalled marketplace, the industry asked the Department of Agriculture to buy up tens of thousands of pounds of excess cheese. The Department obliged, buying 11 million pounds of cheese for its various nutrition assistance program. Social media and other news sources made fun of the whole affair. The Telegraph, for example, joked that “…the USA is facing one of the most difficult issues of its time.”
The idea of an enormous cheese surplus may seem funny – but it is just a small example of the significant food waste challenge that our nation faces. The amount of food in the U.S. that is currently wasted and/or not harvested each year represents a missed opportunity in our country’s fight against hunger and food insecurity. Billions of pounds of surplus food are discarded at both the production and retail levels, despite state and federal tax incentives meant to spur their donation to charitable organizations. One contributing factor is that coordination between food donors and recipients is presently inefficient. Another is that existing tax incentives largely only cover the value of the donated food, and not the cost of transporting it.
How (and How Much) Food Is Wasted
A shocking amount of food goes uneaten and discarded each year. In 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste comprised 35 million tons of the 250 million total tons of municipal solid waste generated that year, and only 1.2 million tons of that food waste was recovered (a rate of 3.5 percent). Much of this loss occurs on the production (i.e., farm) and retail levels. The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the Department of Agriculture estimates that on the retail level, 43 billion pounds of the 430 billion total pounds of available, ready-to-eat food went uneaten in 2010. Feeding America estimates that 6 billion pounds of produce go unharvested or unsold each year, and the ERS estimates that 7 percent of all planted fields in the U.S. are not harvested each year.
Much of this food is wasted because of consumer preference, as Dana Gunders of the National Resources Defense Council explains. Consumers generally want foods that are cosmetically perfect, and slightly-damaged (yet perfectly-edible) foods usually do not make it to market or get thrown out at the market. Food is also wasted because of the difficulty involved in planning how much should be grown or bought. Farmers struggle to forecast just how much they need to grow in order to to match demand. If they end up with more crops than they need – or face market prices that are too low to warrant the expense of harvesting – they may choose not to harvest the crops at all, leaving them on the field to wither. Retailers, on the other hand, frequently overstock displays under the assumption that customers buy more from brimming displays, and usually end up with extra food that is not ultimately sold. Retailers also face difficulty when products arrive in set case sizes, occasionally forcing them to buy more than they need or cancel orders unexpectedly and leave distribution centers with surplus food.
According to the ERS, donating this excess food is in part an issue of coordination. Communication between donors and recipients is often spotty; donors are unsure about what they can donate and recipients are unsure about what they can accept. Gunders describes this process in greater detail: retailers are often forced to simply discard surplus food (especially perishables) if they cannot quickly make arrangements with a replacement buyer or food pantry, and food pantries sometimes reject such donations because they lack the facilities to store them. Transportation is also an issue, according to Brian Lipinski and colleagues at the World Resources Institute. High transportation costs discourage farmers from donating food, even food that will not be sold. As Gunders explains, when food pantries and other recovery organizations are responsible for collection and transportation, they do not always have the adequate funds and resources to do so, and may be forced to decline valuable donations as a result.
What We Can Do About It
The USDA should appoint food recovery ‘donation managers’ in its state offices to act as centralized coordinators for large-scale, continual food donation efforts. Such managers will help to fill the gaps in communication that characterize what is currently a patchwork system, and will be able to more efficiently track and route available donations. Some states, like California and Pennsylvania, have already begun to create such coordinating authorities through their own Departments of Agriculture. The California “Farm-to-Fork” office, created in 2014, streamlines collaboration between farmers, food banks, agencies, and nonprofits in the “…distribution of agricultural products for the purposes of reducing hunger and increasing access to healthy foods”. The Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System, created in 2010, is designed to do the same. These states’ efforts can serve as models. In addition, the national Department should consider using this increased coordinating ability to direct food into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), its primary nutrition-related programs, as part of a push towards healthier eating.
The Internal Revenue Service, meanwhile, should work to create a federal tax credit designed to cover the cost of transporting food to supplement the existing credits that address the cost of food. California has two such credits already – passed in 1996 and 2000 – that permit the deduction of 50 percent of the transportation costs incurred in the donation of agricultural products. A federal tax credit would quickly provide a valuable incentive by preempting the need for each state to pass its own credit.
The Department of Agriculture could work to develop an Internet-based inventory system whereby food producers and retailers themselves can live-update the amounts and types of surplus food they have available. Though the cost of initially developing this system could be high, the long-term strategy of outsourcing the burden of taking inventory would constitute a cost-effective and simple way for the Department to track available surplus food. The Department’s main responsibilities in this regard would eventually reduce to 1) maintaining the electronic system and 2) keeping up with food suppliers to ensure that they stay involved and reporting. The Department could expand this system so that it also has a way for food charities to seamlessly communicate what donations they need and can accommodate. To reduce the expense of initially creating this database, the Department could partner with two existing services: CropMobster.com and AmpleHarvest.com. These two services function as public Internet exchanges whereby people or organizations with available surplus food can publish alerts online and reach other community members and food charities. (The Department, in fact, already partners with AmpleHarvest, which might conceivably speed up the process of licensing its technology.)
In conclusion, the amount of edible food that is not consumed each year also represents a waste of land, water, and fuel. As the population continues to grow, it will be important to manage these resources efficiently while also increasing the amount of food available for consumption. Simply growing more food in lieu of fully using what is already available is an irresponsible and unsustainable course of action, but a dramatic uptick in the amount of food that is recovered will not happen quickly. Thus, it is important to begin promoting a culture of food recovery now. Institutional tools that make food recovery logistically easy and economically desirable will be highly effective for achieving this goal.
Michael Fleischmann is an MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to GSPP, Michael was a research analyst focused on Latin America for ACG Analytics.