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A bold food rescue plan

“Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution” wrote Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Nowhere is this truer than in the case of our nation’s approach to feeding the hungry.

Millions of Americans live in households struggling to put food on the table. At the same time, studies show that some 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. That amounts to more than a billion pounds of food – imagine filling the Rose Bowl with food and incinerating it, every day. The retail value of avoidable food waste is estimated at $197 billion per year.

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Food is the single largest source of waste dumped into our landfills, accounting for 14 percent of the residential municipal solid waste stream, according to the Duke Center for Sustainability & Commerce.

A bold move by the administration of Governor Deval Patrick has the potential to significantly lower that percentage. A proposal by the administration would introduce anaerobic digestion — creating energy from waste — to the Bay State by banning large institutions, such as supermarkets, colleges, hospitals and hotels, from disposing of food waste.

The key sentence from the governor’s proposal, however, is not the ban itself. It is the requirement that these large institutions first attempt to donate or re-purpose unused food. What is not donated can then be sent to an anaerobic digestion facility.

The donation requirement is what sets this proposal apart from other food-to-energy plans, because it not only seeks to solve the landfill issue, it strives to feed the hungry as well.

Investment in anaerobic digestion, a process that converts organic waste into energy, is key to reducing our waste stream. But first, stronger efforts must be made to support the rescue and distribution of quality, edible foods no longer of value at the retail and wholesale level.

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The Patrick administration’s proposal represents a re-thinking of food policy. Doing so will not only aid the hungry, it will strengthen the economy, improve the environment, and lead to better health for those who have relied on canned or frozen food because that is what is currently available to them.

We need to get serious about food rescue. Organizations like ours save truckfuls of food and feed thousands of people each year, but more and better-funded organizations are needed. The governor’s proposal provides a statewide impetus to “upcycle” foods, and the significance of its placement of food donation before food recycling cannot be overstated.

Food donation is a particularly urgent issue, since less than 10 percent of surplus edible food is recovered in the United States. Studies put food waste at up to 20 pounds per person each month, a staggering figure.

We need to re-define and re-examine how we are getting food to people in need and change what is not working. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans every year. The Council notes as well the need for collaboration among businesses, governments, and consumers. All three legs of the stool are needed: businesses need to re-think how they handle surplus food; government needs to facilitate and, where necessary, direct efforts; and consumers must accept that they have a role to play as well — food waste does more than affect their family budget.

Nobody is suggesting that supermarkets sell brown bananas or five star restaurants serve day-old bread. We don’t need those types of interventions. We need a more sensible and balanced approach, where the hungry are fed and the landfills are spared.

The Patrick administration’s proposal identifies the right interventions in the right order: Re-purpose first and then whatever remains should be put to alternate uses, such as energy. The plan demonstrates true vision that is missing at the national level and will put our Commonwealth on the road to food recovery.

Ashley Stanley is the founder and executive director of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue organization.

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