Written by Victoria Shoots & Talia Ralph, Summer 2017 interns in the Food Law and Policy Clinic.
During our final week as FLPC interns, we headed to the nation’s Capitol to join with celebrity chefs, Food Policy Action, ReFED, the James Beard Foundation, and The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) to meet with members on both sides of the legislative branch. We were there to present them with the best fixes to the problem of food waste in America, based on the clinic’s extensive research.
For those of you who may have missed NRDC’s initial groundbreaking report, 40% of the food produced in America ends up in the landfill. This waste costs us $218 billion—or 1.3% of our GDP—each year to grow, process, transport, and dispose. Considering that we spend about $100 billion a year through the farm bill, that’s a lot of money (and delicious food) thrown in the trash! We wanted to alert our representatives and senators to this issue, uniting them around what we see as a bipartisan win with triple-bottom line benefits for citizens, the environment, and our economy. But would they listen?
We’d been preparing for weeks, asking each other the toughest questions we could think of, memorizing information about specific states, and finessing our talking points. When we arrived in D.C. on Tuesday, we went right to work, attending a congressional briefing with our very own Emily Broad Leib, JoAnne Berkencamp (NRDC), Chris Hunt (ReFED), and Meghan Stasz (Grocery Manufacturers Association). It was well-attended, and not just because of the delicious food and drink from Misfit Juicery and Glen’s Garden Market, both of which focus on using food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
That night, we joined the rest of the advocates and chefs for tacos and margaritas at Chef Spike Mendelsohn’s Santa Rosa Taqueria. We broke up into five groups, each a mixture of chefs, policy experts, and food waste advocates; each group would be visiting different senators and representatives the next day. Over dinner, we went over our three main asks of Congress:
- Standardize and clarify date labels by implementing a dual date label system that clearly distinguishes between foods that carry a safety risk past the date and those with a freshness concern;
- Strengthen liability protections for food donors and nonprofits that distribute donated food by delegating responsibility for the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to USDA (through a new Office of Food Waste Reduction) and modifying several key provisions of the Act to better align with the current food recovery landscape;
- Support food waste research, invest in infrastructure for food waste recycling, and support planning and implementation of state and municipal organic waste recycling plans.
We talked about the chefs’ past experiences with lobbying, and strategized about how to deal with difficult questions from members of Congress and their staffers. Although it was both of our first times on the Hill (as well as a bunch of the chefs’!), we were prepared to serve as policy experts and supports for the chefs. They shared their personal experiences with wasted food in their restaurants and we translated these stories into statistics and policy recommendations—a great team strategy with equal parts emotional, firsthand experience and sound data and policy research. After weeks of prep and a great meal, we headed to sleep, as ready as we could be for our big and hectic day on the Hill.
On Wednesday, the full group met for breakfast, and then we all headed off to our respective meetings—over 60 in all! Time was of the essence, as we only had 30 minutes or less to meet with members of Congress or their staffers. Some meetings got shuffled; others happened in office hallways or common spaces of senators’ offices. We dashed back and forth between Senate and House office buildings. While it was no easy feat—especially in D.C.’s signature summer heat and wearing full business dress—it was all worth it in the name of introducing food waste solutions to congressional staffers, many of whom had never even heard of the issue.
One of the many highlights of the day was a meeting and photo op with Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, who along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, just introduced the Food Recovery Act of 2017, a groundbreaking bill which would implement a lot of the clinic’s top recommendations. They thanked us for our work, and we thanked them for theirs.
We capped off our day of advocacy with an incredible reception at Up Top Acres, a rooftop farm featuring spectacular views of the city and a seemingly never-ending supply of repurposed food hors d’oeuvres by some of D.C.’s top chefs. Even the drinks were an homage to the potential of reducing food waste: the cherries were recycled for a tart, refreshing, and much-needed drink. There, we also got the chance to reunite with some former FLPC fellows and interns who had contributed to the Clinic’s work on food waste before us, and now held government roles. It felt like a true homecoming, and a moment to celebrate all that we’d been able to accomplish so far. To end our night, we had an epic dinner that stretched into early Thursday morning…mostly because our chefs took over the ordering, sampling most of the menu as we swapped stories about our day on the Hill.
Though our meetings weren’t always easy, we received a lot of positive feedback from both sides of the aisle, and some important insight into what we need to keep working on and how to present our arguments. As interns looking forward to careers where we can positively impact our food systems, this experience was once-in-a-lifetime. We got a glimpse of how change happens at the federal level, and working with different stakeholders and partners taught us so much about how policy really happens. Plus, the food was great—what else should we have expected from 48 hours advocating with the nation’s best chefs?