For over two years I survived on food waste while filming Trash Empire, a documentary. In the process, I visited many food banks, interviewed experts and acted as a core organizer of DC Food Not Bombs. I’ve explored food waste in a number of cities and know the issue from both first hand experience and academic research.
From everything that I’ve seen and learned, I believe that it is much better for communities to support programs that provide direct access to healthy food, than it is for them to increase tax incentives for donations. While donated food will surely continue to be an important part of coping with food waste, the logistics and unpredictability of it make it too unreliable to viably “solve hunger” alone.
When we talk about food waste, the conversation often centers around ugly fruits and vegetables and the importance of encouraging food donations. Our preoccupation with otherwise nutritious foods and donating it makes sense. We want to focus our time and energy on healthy, nutritious foods and the people who need it. However, this focus usually ignores one of the unspoken secrets of food waste: not all of it is healthy and many organizations are already overwhelmed by the volume of unhealthy donations they recieve. This fact is something that public policy sometimes doesn’t acknowledge.
With some exceptions on the local and state levels, tax incentives often don’t distinguish between junk food and fresh produce. This tempts businesses, especially chain grocery stores, to pawn their unwanted junk food off on food banks. These businesses benefit financially and are also credited for being good environmental stewards.
Large food banks can turn away unwanted junk food, but small ones may feel pressure to accept every donation, or none at all. Marie Mourad, a food waste researcher, has documented instances of food banks doing things like feeding junk food donations to bears for fear of losing a food donor entirely. This is surely a case of solutions causing new problems all together.
The problem of unwanted junk food is compounded when we consider that food banks generally sort and process the food themselves. That is, the onus of throwing away unwanted junk food is merely moved from the business to the non-profit. The end result isn’t necessarily changed (the food is still tossed), crucial volunteer hours are wasted and fossil fuels are needlessly burned to move the unwanted donations. This burden is an added strain on community food supports.
Some political leaders want to increase unqualified federal tax incentives for donations, but this only further invests us in a broken system. Already tax incentives for donating some foods exceed the cost of the food’s production. We are accidentally incentivizing waste and providing an excuse to not critically evaluate the way we distribute and move food.
There is definitely an argument to be made for continuing tax incentives for donations. Donating food is not as convenient as tossing it out, and in cities with limited real estate, saving donations takes up valuable space. Businesses that donate should be rewarded; however it is worth considering that our current system is largely blind to the nutritional value of food. Our system doesn’t care if a donation is soda or water. Our system doesn’t care if a donation is fresh produce or junk food. Do we really want to increase tax incentives for all kinds of foods? I don’t think so. We are accidentally damaging community health, and hurting our most vulnerable populations.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with giving candy or junk food to needy people. Everyone should be allowed to choose what they eat. However in my years as a food waste researcher, I have observed an abundance of junk food being donated to food banks and I have also observed an abundance of junk food in the dumpster. Commercial food waste amounts to approximately 147,000,000 lbs of food per day in the United States. If we further increase unqualified tax incentives for donations, there is plenty more junk food available to be dumped on charities that must work hard to sort these donations.
It makes more sense to direct our efforts towards helping industry streamline distribution so that there is less waste to begin with. We should also be investing in community organizations so that they can provide people in need with direct access to nutritious food rather than the waste that other people don’t want. Donations will continue to be an important part of coping with food waste, but stopping waste before it happens and ensuring that people have access to nutritious food should be our first focus. We owe it to our communities to invest in their health directly.