USDA food waste funding scarce a year after setting goal

Battle Creek wants to become a model for how an American city can completely eliminate food waste. If only it could get some federal money to start the process.

Representatives for the southern Michigan town of 52,000 — home to cereal giant Kellogg — are awaiting the Agriculture Department’s response to a request they made in June to help them raise $3 million they say is needed to build composting and waste-to-energy facilities and launch consumer information campaigns that would reduce the amount of food their community is throwing in landfills. They say they aren’t expecting USDA to foot the entire bill, just provide some initial funds to kickstart the effort.

“We are looking for the first $1,” said Bill Schroer, a consultant and former food company brand manager who is working with the town and its business district on the food waste project. “Once you get some people in the boat, then other people start to see it as a good investment.”

By launching its own initiative, Battle Creek would be helping Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy move closer to the goal they announced with great fanfare a year ago of halving food waste in the U.S. by 2030. However, as just a few months remain for the administration, it has yet to introduce any kind of funding mechanism for such an effort, leaving communities and interest groups scratching their heads.

“Right after the targets came out, those of us who have been working on this for a while were really excited to see such ambitious goals set,” said Dana Gunders, a staff scientist for the National Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program. “In terms of what the administration has done since then, I’d say it’s been a little bit disappointing.”

To be sure, there’s no easy fix for reducing food waste in the United States. A 2014 report from the USDA found that 31 percent of the U.S. food supply — about 133 billion pounds worth — ends up in landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But the report didn’t capture the full extent of the problem, as it was based on 2010 numbers for how much food was produced and imported compared to how much was purchased and exported and doesn’t take into account uneaten food consumers toss at home.

In September 2015, the USDA and EPA announced that the United States was joining with other countries in subscribing to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for cutting food waste in half in 15 years.

“Our new reduction goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste,” Vilsack said in a press release announcing the effort.

The two agencies have backed up their pledge with a few actions, publishing tips and guides for what to do with leftovers from the dinner table and kitchen scraps, and how to shop better. They have funded research into how to keep food fresher for longer, worked with businesses to help them reduce their waste, and held summits and other events to get ideas on how to further address the issue. They started working with faith-based groups and food pantries to make sure safe food is going to hungry families.

More than 3,800 restaurants, farms, government agencies and other groups have signed on to the USDA’s Food Waste Challenge while 803 have signed onto the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. The programs encourage participants to reduce their waste and recycle or reuse the waste they do produce, and shares best practices.

Still, Gunders said the administration should take more concrete steps, like including food waste infrastructure under existing grant programs. Such an initiative would help communities, like Battle Creek, that are looking for money now to address the issue. Those leading the food waste reduction effort in the Michigan town say as much in their appeal to the USDA.

“We believe our concept aligns completely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its overarching goal of food waste reduction,” the group says in its letter. “However, as is often the case with progressive initiatives, the framing of our proposal does not neatly fit into any one of the available USDA funding mechanisms.”

Schroer said the town’s economic development arm and the Battle Creek Community Foundation started looking at the prospect of making the city a test market for eliminating food waste earlier this year. While the city’s food manufacturers are efficient with their waste, grocery stores and restaurants in town alone are tossing away more than a million pounds of food each year, he said.

Through a combination of composting, anaerobic digestion — which captures methane from food and other waste and turns it into energy — public service campaigns and better facilitation of food donations, those behind the plan figured that the community could serve as a test market for how to achieve zero food waste. Some towns and cities have experimented with one or two of those options, or put in place landfill bans on food waste, but none that Battle Creek could find have set up the full array of infrastructure. In their letter, the town’s representatives say that four USDA officials helped with developing the concept.

The plan is expensive. All told, the town estimates it needs about $3 million to get everything up and running, some of which will likely come from private sector sources.

A USDA spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about Battle Creek’s funding request.

The Obama administration had hoped that by spotlighting the issue of food waste, consumers, grocers and restaurants would also be spurred to change their practices. While the food industry and some environmental groups had already been working to address the issue, the federal attention has helped to ramp up those efforts.

In 2011, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and National Restaurant Association set up the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which seeks to help members account for how much waste they have and the best way to curb it. Since the goal was set, the group has put out a best practices guide for its members and is preparing to release an assessment of restaurant, manufacturing and grocery sectors’ waste this month.

Meanwhile, the NRDC and the Ad Council have launched a public service announcement campaign, called “Save the Food,” aimed at creating awareness among consumers for when food sitting in the pantry past its sell-by date is still safe to eat.

Those groups, as well as Wal-Mart and Land O’Lakes, started lobbying lawmakers on the issue in 2016, according to federal disclosures.

It seems Congress has listened, too. Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate since the announcement would standardize “best by” dates on food packaging to make it clear when food is still safe to eat, stem food waste at government facilities and require the USDA to do research and provide money for reduction efforts. Democrats are leading the effort — Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have joined Rep. Chellie Pingree (Maine) in championing the issue — but farm-state Republicans are also interested.

The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing in May in which Chairman Mike Conaway (Texas) promised to look at how to best address food waste.

“Tackling food waste in this country is, and should be a nonpartisan issue that will be most successful by engaging everyone in the food chain, from field to table,” Conaway said in his opening remarks.

While its unclear if the legislation will go anywhere, Pingree said the interest from both sides of the aisle is promising.

“We are hopeful that the incredible momentum around food waste will continue on the Hill,” Pingree said. “I will continue to work closely with them as the House Agriculture Committee gears up for the next Farm Bill, and will continue to push for more support for food waste efforts in my role on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.”