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Maine's Chellie Pingree Tackles Food Waste

It turns out that what happens in my household is not atypical: My wife insists upon discarding products promptly upon reaching the date stamped on the packaging, against my arguments that such action is premature.

This common scene is actually part of a larger problem of food waste, according to Rep. Chellie Pingree of southern Maine. Pingree introduced the Food Recovery Act last week, the latest and perhaps most ambitious of her attempts to address the issue—a crusade she somewhat immodestly compares, wishfully, to the days of recycling.

"Nobody really thought anything of throwing everything in the trash” before that movement, Pingree tells me; today, people think nothing of separating and sorting.

Now, Pingree wants them to focus on the 40 percent of all food that goes to waste in the U.S. That, she argues, will save money and landfill space, and possibly even reduce hunger.

"There’s a real cost to this,” Pingree says. “Municipal landfills are overwhelmed by organic waste.”

So, for example, Pingree’s bill would clarify for consumers like my wife and I what those sell-by dates mean. In most cases (other than baby food), they are voluntary and defined by the manufacturer; they often indicate the end of peak taste rather than likelihood of spoiling.

Other pieces of the bill target farms, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants. It would also start within the federal government itself, by creating an Office of Food Recovery and requiring companies with federal food-service contracts to donate surplus food.

Encouraging donation of surplus food to food pantries and soup kitchens is a big part of Pingree’s approach. A big part of the bill consists of tax breaks for farmers, retailers, and restaurants making those donations.

Just as Pingree was announcing the Food Recovery Act in Portland last week, the Maine town of Brunswick was hit with news that the local supermarket was discontinuing its food donations to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program—part of a new corporate policy through which Shaw’s Supermarkets is ending such donation programs, her office learned.

After she raised a stink about it, Shaw’s agreed to reconsider its new policy.

A tax incentive would presumably help Shaw’s, and others, decide to expand such programs, rather than scale them back. Pingree even hoped, as of this writing, to get that portion of the bill included in a large annual “tax extension” package expected to be passed by Congress before its winter recess.