Pingree picks Portland Co-op to highlight food waste fight

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PORTLAND — Less will be more, if U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has her way.

Citing federal statistics showing 40 percent – or 133 billion pounds – of domestically produced food goes to waste at an estimated cost of $161 billion annually, Pingree introduced legislation Monday to combat food waste while feeding more families.

“Changing the issues around food waste requires a broad approach,” Pingree said at a press conference at the Portland Food Co-op, located at 290 Congress St.

Pingree said eliminating 15 percent of food waste would cut food insecurity in America in half.

Food insecurity is defined on varied levels by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet,” or “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

The legislation, “tackles food waste on four different levels,” Pingree said.

It would first standardize food expiration dates, which are not legally binding except as applied to baby food, Pingree said. Her bill would add language to say “best if used by” or note the date is suggested by manufacturers.

“Very few dates you see suggest a food safety issue,” she said. “Maybe (manufacturers) just want to move them off the shelves.”

Her bill would allow retailers and restaurants to donate food past its expiration date to pantries or agencies while reducing legal liability for making the donations.

Pingree’s bill would also increase tax deductions for farmers donating produce to pantries, as food that is deemed unsaleable because of its appearance is often not even harvested, she said.

Farmers could also get government help or funding to set up composting operations, and Pingree is proposing to amend school lunch procurement policies to allow farmers to sell more produce that may otherwise go to waste because of its appearance.

In an effort to keep food waste out of landfills, Pingree’s bill would create incentives for municipal composting programs. Keeping food waste out of landfills would reduce methane emissions, she said.

Joining Pingree in support of the legislation were co-op General Manager John Crane, Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale, Hannaford Bros. Sustainability Manager George Parmenter and Exeter Agri-Energy General Manager Dan Bell.

“Food waste for us is personal,” Crane said. “We know how hard it is to not see this food end up on peoples’ tables.”

In its first year of operations, the co-op has expanded to work with about 250 local suppliers and producers, worth $1 million in sales of the $3 million of overall revenues.

Miale said donations of unsaleable food allows Good Shepherd to reclaim about 16 million meals annually from the donations it receives, and Pingree’s legislation would increase that.

“Not only in terms of volume, but in terms of the quality of food we provide,” she said.

Parmenter praised the legislation, noting 40 Hannaford stores in the state have diverted food waste from the general refuse stream.

“Food waste, like hunger, is something we are going to solve together,” he said.

Bell manages a facility in Exeter, New Hampshire that recaptures methane from food waste and uses it for energy. He said the facility processes up to 20 tons per hour and generated 23 kilowatt hours of electricity each day.

While noting the House of Representatives can be unpredictable, Pingree said she had high hopes for the legislation.

“Issues related to food security are less partisan,” she said, adding industry groups interested in reducing waste may also support her efforts.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree on Monday outlines her legislation to fight food waste and feed the hungry at the Portland Food Co-op.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.