Food waste is a large problem in the United States. According to the USDA, 133 billion pounds of food were wasted in 2010; that food was worth approximately $161 billion. Annual food waste comprises somewhere between 30-40% of all food produced in the United States each year. There are a variety of negative effects to this food waste: lost productivity, unnecessary food insecurity, exacerbation of climate change, and more.
There exist public and nonprofit programs that attempt to reduce food waste, with limited success. Typically, these programs attempt to move food that would otherwise be wasted to emergency food providers, like food banks and food pantries. The federal government operates The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which supplied 709.4 million pounds of commodities to emergency food providers in fiscal year 2017. New York City has the donateNYC program, which coordinates efforts to save food (and other resources) among nonprofits. In 2018, its partner organizations saved approximately 32,014 tons (64.03 million pounds) of food and beverages from landfills.
Such organizations and programs only address a small part of the problem, as indicated by the relative scales of these programs versus the amount of wasted food. This is in large part because of the lack of large-scale, coordinated action at the federal level. Decades of emphasis on individual efforts and private charity as a means to address inequity in the food system have led to a situation in which the federal government is unwilling to take action to address the problem. Charitable efforts are noble but insufficient in and of themselves to end food waste.
If food waste is to be reduced sustainably and equitably, the federal government must be involved to a much more significant and comprehensive degree. Food is too important of an issue to leave to laissez-faire capitalism and private charity. There ought to be a concerted effort by the federal government to move food from where it would be wasted to where it can be consumed.
TEFAP ought to be expanded to provide more of the food that would otherwise be wasted to emergency food providers, and perhaps directly to people in need. There is also more that could be done. The concept of gleaning, which has existed for millennia, is highly applicable here. Gleaning entails people coming and taking food from fields that would otherwise go to waste. The process can be used to both mitigate food waste and food insecurity (the inability to obtain sufficient food on a reliable basis for an active, healthy life).
Gleaning, as with other means of addressing food waste, should be done by federal government program in order to ensure comprehensive coverage. The federal government has the capacity, in theory, to promote a national gleaning program that would save more food than any nonprofit could hope to. Such a program could easily be put in the next Farm Bill. With expanded, comprehensive means of addressing food waste put into practice, there could be far less wasted food and far more food directed to where it ought to be.