Editorials, Opinion

How to solve food insecurity: Stop trashing edible food

New York and California recently passed laws to keep edible foods out of landfills — and hopefully into the hands of hungry people.

California’s law went into effect in January 2022, with the statewide goal of recovering (i.e., not trashing) 20% of edible food by 2025. Food producers and distributors must donate edible food and compost non-edible food. New York’s law is similar: Businesses and institutions that generate, on average, two tons or more of food waste per week must donate edible food and recycle (compost or send to an anaerobic recycling facility) inedible food.

We’d like to see a similar program in West Virginia.

Nationally, about 40% of food is wasted, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The nonprofit REFed says the U.S. wasted 91 million tons of food in 2021; West Virginia wasted 365,000 tons. Half of that was a mix of prepared foods and produce, with an additional 30% coming from dairy, eggs and dry goods. Plus, as food rots in landfills, it releases environment-damaging methane gas.

With that much food going uneaten, there’s no reason anyone should go hungry.

There are many large and small businesses that donate surplus food, but there are many more that don’t. Some national chains even make it corporate policy that any unsold food must be thrown away — not donated, not taken home or eaten by employees, just simply thrown in the dumpster.

We can understand that some businesses and institutions with excess food waste fear donating food past its “sell-by” date for legal reasons: If someone ends up sick, the donator could be held liable. However, most food is still edible past its sell-by and even “best-by” date. (There is still a time limit on most goods, ranging from one week after the sell-by date to one year.) Plus, there is a national law that protects the donating organization or individual as long as there was no negligence or intentional misconduct.

Northeastern business professor John Lowrey’s research found that donating “expired” but still edible foods actually benefits businesses. Instead of continually reducing the price for produce that’s a little less than perfect or milk that is right at its sell-by date, which takes up space on the shelves, businesses can make more money by donating those goods and freeing up shelf space for fresher — and therefore higher-priced — goods.

So far, this all sounds like a win-win.

That said, when something sounds this good, there’s probably a “but.” California’s blanket law is so strict that it hurts small businesses, especially those in rural areas. In those places, transporting the food could cost food banks more than the food was worth, and when food couldn’t be donated, businesses had to pay to have the waste transported for recycling or composting.

New York state’s law, however, applied specifically to large waste producers (two tons or more per week) and exempted hospitals, nursing homes, adult care facilities and K-12 schools. That sounds like a more measured approach that could work in West Virginia, but we’d like to see some provisions that strongly encourage or incentivize small businesses and restaurants — including those in rural areas — to donate food that can’t be sold. Maybe that means having a “free” or “10-cent” shelf in a store, or eateries having a window of time right at closing when people can come collect any edible unsold food that would otherwise be trashed.

With as much food as goes to waste in this country and in this state, no one should ever be left hungry. But solving hunger means letting go of the idea of food as purely a commodity that must be sold for profit, and instead understanding that it’s better to give edible food away for free than to let it rot in a landfill.