Is Federal Food Waste Reduction Policy on Its Way? Part One

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

August 17, 2021

7 Min Read
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

This two-part article explores new activity on the federal food waste reduction policy front. Part 1 looks at two newly introduced bills: The Zero Food Waste Act and the COMPOST Act. Part 2 tells the story of how Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and partners are working to help shape such federal policy and what strategies they think make most sense.

Two federal food waste-related bills have made their way to the House and Senate with these primary goals: 1) provide state and local governments and communities resources to reduce and prevent food waste and 2) incentivize farmers and other community stakeholders to advance composting infrastructure.

The Zero Food Waste Act and the Cultivating Organic Matter Through the Promotion of Sustainable Techniques (COMPOST) Act were recently introduced by Congresswomen Julia Brownley (D-CA), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME); Senator Cory Booker (D- NJ) introduced companion legislation in the Senate. 

The Zero Food Waste Act, which would be the first U.S. Environmental Agency grant program to address food waste, calls for $650 million in funding annually through 2031. It would be allocated toward research and developing state and local policies and programs to divert food from landfills. Competitive grants would support the creation of infrastructure, projects focused on measuring food waste, and projects focused on reduction and prevention (such as food rescue, recycling, upcycling, and developing markets for compost products).

Funds would be available to state, local, and tribal governments as well as nonprofits.

The COMPOST Act designates composting as an approved conservation practice for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. Projects involving producing compost from organic waste and projects using compost on farms would qualify for federal funding and assistance.

Specifically, $200 million would be available annually over 10 years for composting infrastructure, namely collections and processing. Those eligible for USDA grants and/or loan guarantees include states, local, and/or tribal governments; school districts; higher education institutions; farmers and ranchers; and non-profit organizations.

“We are working to get funding programs proposed in the Zero Food Waste Act and the COMPOST Act included into the budget reconciliation package that the House will soon be negotiating over,” Rep. Brownley says. Though she points out there’s plenty of work to do to move the bills forward.

She wrote to Waste360 about why she got behind both pieces of legislation:

“The solutions that would be funded through the Zero Food Waste Act are good for decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions and also good for our economy in that they prevent the waste of $408 billion that is spent on growing, processing, transporting, storing, and disposing of food that is never consumed.”

Rep. Brownley figures the COMPOST Act could lead to a “win-win for both the climate and farmers.” 

“Composting is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to dispose of food and organic waste while also yielding a valuable soil additive that improves soil health. Healthier soil both increases crop yields, which is good for farmers, while sequestering more carbon, which is good for the climate.”

ReFED, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have long pushed for food waste reduction policy and strategies, recently rolling out the US Food Loss & Waste Policy Action Plan, which helped inform the Zero Food Waste Act. They went on to  review language and make recommendations for the legislation.

The Zero Food Waste Act is an important first step to carrying out the Action Plan, as it would fund organic waste measurement as well as what cities and states need to able to implement policies that divert food waste from landfills, says Emily Broad Leib, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

She emphasizes the power in funneling the funds from top to lower down.

“Supporting state and local efforts to create organic waste bans or other landfill diversion laws is critical because given the way we typically regulate waste these policies would be very difficult to implement at the federal level. Each state/locality has its own nuance, and different policies are going to be the right fit in different regions,” she says.

The Zero Food Waste Act promotes funding toward prevention and measurement in a way that previous bills have not, says Dana Gunders, ReFED executive director. She explains the connection between measurement, prevention, and reduction.

“Measurement is critical, because it will show where reduction projects should be focused.

Grants that promote study and measurement can lead to prevention (especially measurement), while several of the food waste reduction activities will directly (e.g., technical assistance) or indirectly (e.g., landfill restrictions) also drive prevention activities. ReFED would love to see communities use this funding to incentivize adoption of prevention technologies. And that's entirely possible given the way the bill is written,” Gunders says.

Stephanie Cappa, deputy director, Policy and Government Affairs, World Wildlife Fund, also emphasizes the significance of measurement, and lays out other critical bill components in WWF’s view.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The bill supports community-led efforts to measure and reduce food waste from farm to fork –providing resources to communities to create their own reduction roadmaps, and invest in local projects –including infrastructure – that can create jobs and help address climate change.”

Like Broad-Lieb, Cappa honed in on the region-specific nature of the problem and how the Zero Food Waste Act considers this.

“We are increasingly seeing businesses, consumers, and local and state-level policymakers taking action to reduce food waste. The Zero Food Waste Act answers a growing demand for ambition and leadership, with a flexible and locally-led approach.”

Further, she says the bill prioritizes projects in low-income communities and communities of color that have been affected by adverse human health or environmental impacts [like emissions from rotting food waste].

Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is among those who publicly endorsed the COMPOST Act.

“To date, the management of compost production and on-farm application has not been made a conservation practice by USDA, so farmers have not been able to receive assistance for this soil health practice through the Farm Bill’s conservation programs. We thank Representatives Brownley, Pingree, and Kuster and Senator Booker for introducing this important, climate-smart, and farmer-friendly legislation that corrects this oversight ….  so farmers and ranchers will have an affordable and practical tool to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” Deeble said in a statement.

Neither Rep. McLane Kuster or Pingree responded to interview requests but had released these earlier statements:

“Eliminating agriculture waste, carbon emissions and addressing hunger are among my top priorities in Congress. Two ways to help us reach those goals are maximizing the amount of food that gets eaten, and when food must be thrown away, ensuring it is composted to enhance soil health – that’s why I’m excited to join Representatives Brownley and Pingree and Senator Booker to introduce [this legislation],” Rep. McLane Kuster said.

Said Rep. Pingree, co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Food Recovery Caucus: “I fully support [these two] bills to mitigate the environmental hazards posed by wasted food, boost composting efforts nationwide, and reduce the chance that food waste ends up turning into methane in a landfill.”

National Resources Defense Council declined Waste360’s interview request but in an early statement Yvette Cabrera, director of Food Waste at the Natural Resources Defense Council endorsed the Zero Food Waste Act specifically, stating funding from this bill would better equip communities “usually responsible for waste management, land use, and local food regulations – to take the lead in food waste reduction like never before.”  An overview of NRDC’s point of view as well as on both pieces of legislation can be found here.

The next step will be for the two bills to be heard in respective committees and possibly adopted into some existing draft legislation, such as the Clean Future Act introduced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  

“They've just been introduced, so we'll see how far they do get.  In the current political climate, I think the climate benefits are more powerful than ever in helping these bills progress,” Gunders says.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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