By Katherine Sandson, J.D. ’17, Harvard Law School
Originally published by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs at Harvard Law School.
When I enrolled in the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) during the January term, I was assigned to work on the clinic’s food waste and food recovery projects. These projects included a short film, entitled Expired? Food Waste in America, that the clinic was producing in conjunction with Racing Horse Productions. The film explores the effects of an administrative rule in Montana that prevents milk from being sold after its labeled date, which must be no more than twelve days following pasteurization, even though milk is safe for consumption far longer. FLPC produced the film to provide one example of how the lack of uniform, federal standards for date labeling in the U.S. contributes to the 160 billion pounds of food waste generated by Americans each year.
By the time I joined the clinic, the film itself was nearly complete. While past clinical students had worked on producing the script, conducting interviews, and editing the film, I spent time preparing for the film’s release. This work included drafting and editing op-eds to accompany the short film in online news outlets, providing feedback on the content of the film’s website, and drafting guidance materials to help people run screenings of the film. During the spring semester, now that the film has been released, I have continued to help brainstorm and execute additional strategies for getting the film out to a broader audience.
Prior to joining FLPC, I would not have categorized most of this work as legal in nature. Through my work on this film, however, I have come to appreciate the value of media advocacy as a complement to legislative or policy advocacy. The release of this film was timed to coincide with the announcement that a bill that would standardize date labeling at the federal level will soon be introduced in the Senate. This bill has the potential to significantly reduce food waste, but it will require support to get passed, and mediums like film can help create that support. Moreover, legislation, once in effect, does not operate in a vacuum. Because food—everything from how we shop for food to how we store and dispose of it—is so cultural and habitual, education and awareness of what date labels mean and how they relate to food safety will likely be important to maximizing the effectiveness of any date labeling legislation that is passed.
Over the past few months, I have learned that non-legal tools like film can play an important role in supporting legislative and policy efforts by generating conversation and awareness. The Expired film, for example, tells one story, accompanied by vivid images, that illustrates a larger problem in only a few minutes. As a result, the clinic sees it as an important tool for raising public awareness about the connection between date labeling and food waste, in advance of the upcoming federal legislation and related efforts at the state or local levels.
Through my work to promote this film, I have gained a detailed understanding of the current legal framework for regulating date labels, and of the framework FLPC would like to see put in place. Perhaps more importantly, I have also learned to break down these legal frameworks for non-legal audiences. I am grateful for the opportunity to work on a project that has expanded my ideas about what legal skills and legal advocacy look like.