Written by Talia Ralph, Summer 2017 intern in the Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Once you start working on food waste issues, you start to see it everywhere—from your bleary-eyed 7 a.m. breakfast at your hotel’s buffet to the conference spread of delicious, healthy salads and wraps. Where is all this leftover food going to go? You wonder, recalling the logistical barriers you’ve been researching for weeks. How can we keep it from going to waste?
At Recovering Food in the Chesapeake Region: Policies, Resources and Innovations, a day-long conference we co-hosted with our partners at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in Silver Spring, Maryland, we clearly had some dedicated advocates in the audience. I say this not just because they asked thoughtful, in-depth questions about food waste reduction and recycling policies, nor because they presented their own clear and effective strategies and success stories of getting food waste policies off the ground. I say this because our 40-some attendees completely cleared the buffet table at the end of the day. Not a single cookie or vegan BLT wrap was left.
I’ve been thinking about food waste more than usual these days, given that I’ve been researching several states’ policies (or lack thereof) for the seven weeks I’ve been at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. We’d practiced this particular presentation—based on the recommendations from our toolkit Keeping Food Out of The Landfill: Policies and Ideas for States and Localities and tailored to the Chesapeake region—a great deal before we arrived. It was my first time explaining legal concepts to an audience of more than one (usually comprised of either my teddy bear, my girlfriend, or my mom), and I was nervous. Sure, I’m a law student and a former Canadian National debater, but the idea of being an expert on something as multifaceted as liability protections for food donations gave me pause.
For one thing, there were lots of stakeholders to consider. The restaurant owners concerned about their reputations should they be found to be donating extra food and advocates who feel that no person in need should have to pay for donated food…just to name a few. An issue that had seemed so straightforward to me before working at the Clinic—getting surplus food to people who are food-insecure is a good thing!—suddenly became alive with different viewpoints and perspectives I had never considered. Also, our audience was full of people who have been working in this space for much longer than I have. They’re on the ground every day doing food recovery and food waste reduction. What could a young Canadian food-journalist-turned-law-student tell them that they didn’t already know?
As I stood up to present our recommendations about liability protections, which include extending those protections to organizations and individuals who donate food directly as opposed to through a non-profit, as well as to organizations like Daily Table who charge a nominal fee for donated food, that stress melted away. Sitting in the room were advocates who were dedicated to eradicating food waste, and their enthusiasm and experience set me at ease. They peppered me with questions I had answers to, and they offered their own perspectives. I didn’t have to be an expert—I was surrounded by experts!
Ona Balkus, a former Clinic fellow now working with DC Councilmember Mary M. Cheh on sustainable policies in D.C., spoke about her experience working on the District’s proposed Save Good Food Amendment Act, which would put a ton of our recommendations into practice in the District. West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition staffer David Manthos enlightened us about the challenges of lobbying for sustainable policies in West Virginia. Brenda Platt, the Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, made an amazing case for composting and waste bans. CLF’s Sameer Siddiqi shared his big-picture research on food waste plans across the country, and Cheryl Kollin told us about how Community Food Rescue grew its reach in Maryland.
As we headed back to the airport after a long, full day of discussion and connections, we grabbed a take-out dinner from a sandwich place in our terminal. I am pleased to inform you that nobody’s leftovers went to the trash; I had leftover salad for lunch the next day.