5 Ways the Government Can Tackle Food Waste in America

Up to 40% of food is wasted in America. Now, some organizations have given Congress an action plan.

pile of discarded zucchini
A pile of discarded zucchini in Florida, April 2020, after reduced demand forced farmers to throw away crops.

Getty Images / Joe Raedle

Every year, anywhere between 30% and 40% of food produced for human consumption is wasted in the United States. Sometimes it fails to get harvested or it spoils during transport; other times it does not get sold at the supermarket or perhaps it gets forgotten at the back of someone's fridge. 

There are many ways for food to go to waste, but it all adds up to the same tragic loss of valuable resources and the production of planet-warming greenhouse gases — approximately 4% of U.S. emissions — as that food degrades. Meanwhile, many people are suffering from food insecurity and would benefit from putting that food on their own tables. This loss has a steep financial cost worth $408 billion, roughly 2% of the national GDP.

Addressing this disconnect between waste and need is the goal of several organizations, including ReFED, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. With support from other stakeholders and NGOs, these organizations have created a comprehensive action plan to combat food loss and waste (FLW) that was presented to Congress and the Biden Administration in early April 2021. The hope is that the federal government will rally behind the fight to slow food waste as part of its broader commitment to tackle climate change. 

The plan consists of five main actions:

1. Invest in Prevention Measures That Keep Food Waste Out of Landfill

The plan states "food is the single largest input by weight into U.S. municipal landfills and incinerators" and that "it is often cheaper to send organic waste such as food to landfills or incinerators than it is to donate, repurpose, or recycle it." This could change with funding given to cities to build better measuring, rescuing, recycling, and prevention tools. 

The plan emphasizes a need for data, which is currently sparse, as well as mandating bans on mixing organic waste with household trash. Such bans have been effective in Vermont and Massachusetts, where food donations increased three-fold and by 22%, respectively, when passed. Building demand for compost could help, as well as lifting restrictions on feeding food scraps to livestock.

2. Expand Incentives to Institutionalize Food Donations

A year ago, many farmers were forced to destroy fields of unharvested food when contracts with vendors were halted due to COVID-19. It was a horrible sight that revealed the inflexibility of the American food production system. It was complicated to donate that fresh food, and impossible to do so before it went bad.

A new system is needed, which Congress could enable by revising donation policies and making it easier for farmers, retailers, and foodservice organizations to do so. This would include strengthening liability protections, clarifying guidelines for how to donate food safely, and working to create alternative market channels for farmers whose contracts dry up unexpectedly, such as the Farmers to Families Food Box program that was made during the pandemic. 

3. Assert the US Government's Leadership on FLW

The U.S. has one of the world's highest rates of food loss and waste per capita and thus has a responsibility to address this problem. Now that the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement and the Biden Administration says it wants to decarbonize the food and agriculture sector, tackling FLW should be an obvious priority. 

It is an effective way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions: "Taking sufficient steps to meet the US commitment to reduce FLW by 50% by 2030 can lower U.S. GHG emissions by 75 MMTCO2e per year." 

The federal government should lead by example, requiring its own facilities to divert organic waste away from landfills and incinerators and striving to donate or recycle all surplus food. 

4. Educate Consumers With Food Waste Behavior Change Campaigns

Thirty-seven percent of food waste happens at the household level, which means that if people start buying, handling, and consuming food differently, it could make a big difference. The plan calls for campaigns to educate the public about the severity of this issue and provide practical tips for fighting food waste at home.

5. Require a National Date Labeling Standard 

Confusion about expiration dates drives significant amounts of food to get wasted. People often throw away items that have passed a date printed on the container but are still fine to eat. There are some voluntary initiatives in the U.S. to standardize "best by" (refers to peak quality) and "use by" (refers to safety) labels, but it needs to be adopted fully across the food industry. That's only going to happen with federal intervention, such as passing the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act.

grocery store after hours
Grocery store, after hours. Getty Images/Mint Images

Dana Gunders, executive director at ReFED, described the government as "the critical linchpin" in the fight against food waste. She says in a press release: "Policy can create an environment that accelerates the adoption of food waste reduction solutions at a large scale. By incentivizing food practices, penalizing bad behavior, or clarifying what activities are allowed, policy has the power to spark the food system into action."

WWF's senior director of food loss and waste, Pete Pearson, agreed. "Many organizations have made significant progress on the issue of food loss and waste, but we can move faster with the full backing of the U.S. government," says Pearson. "We need investment in the infrastructure necessary for diversion – to keep good food from going to landfill – which will yield immediate environmental and social benefits. But we must also focus on preventing waste in the first place, meaning investments that fully commit to measuring the problem at scale."

Tackling food waste was rated the third most effective solution to reversing global warming by Project Drawdown in 2017, so this action plan is a smart and practical solution to a problem affecting us all. Congress would do well to pay close attention.