Statistics, Stories, and Solutions
Food Councils Work Together to Bring Local Food Waste and Recovery Issues to the State Policy Level
Photo above: Lunch tray from schools in Asheville, NC
To the food councils, the issue seemed clear: a lack of information and clarity around food recovery regulations was preventing food from being recovered and served to those in need.
...one county discouraged them from donating leftovers, yet the other county not only encouraged them to donate but provided resources for how to do so.
Emergency feeding programs and community organizations across North Carolina rely heavily on donations of leftover prepared foods from restaurants, food institutions, and cafeterias. With particularly tight budgets, public schools are careful to avoid leftovers, but some excess food is inevitable in any institutional food service program. Prior to 2017, the Greater High Point Food Alliance, Guilford Food Council, and their partners benefited from one such impactful relationship with Guilford County Schools. In 2018, however, their food recovery arrangement stopped abruptly when the Guilford Health Department told the school system that prepared food donations would no longer be allowed based on an NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) 2016 Position Statement regarding donated food.
From Local Learning to Statewide Collaborations
Suspecting that this issue might not be isolated to their community, the Greater High Point Food Alliance and Guilford Food Council asked Community Food Strategies, a hub for local food councils and individuals across North Carolina, to convene other food councils to strategize around food recovery challenges. It turns out that many communities across the state were experiencing similar issues, so Community Food Strategies launched ‘Collaborative Calls’ on Food Waste & Recovery. Food councils across the state began to join regular calls to share local experiences and support each other by brainstorming solutions.
Through the Collaborative Calls, participants learned that some counties allow for prepared foods to be donated and others do not. Additionally, guidance and implementation resources vary significantly across the state. For example, one restaurant with locations in two neighboring counties expressed confusion as the health department in one county discouraged them from donating leftovers. Yet, the other county not only encouraged them to donate to a local soup kitchen but provided information on how to do so.
It was clear right away that this issue is particularly complex for schools. In addition to budget constraints and state revenue requirements, public schools face oversight from their local health department and the NC Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI). Food safety isn’t the only concern. There are also logistical and financial challenges, such as limitations on staff oversight and refrigeration. Plus, food served in school cafeterias falls under a completely different category of recovered food because it has technically already entered the hands of consumers, subjecting it to stricter regulations.
Statistics, Stories, and Solutions
To the food councils, the issue seemed clear: a lack of information and clarity around food recovery regulations was preventing food from being recovered and served to those in need. But it would take more convincing to achieve change on the state level. The food councils were eager to take their concerns to the state policy level as soon as possible, but they knew that this issue needed more awareness and research. Stories from local communities would also be critical.
Carl Vierling, Executive Director of the Greater High Point Food Alliance, believes that “statistics, stories, and solutions” are a winning combination to facilitate change. “Sharing information and data to the community is very powerful. I now have folks reaching out to our state representatives, people who have never done anything about food recovery before. Because they trust us, they are sharing the information that we provide. You have to earn [community members’] trust.” And it’s their stories that will inspire change.
The local food councils certainly had heard and observed many stories of the impact and dire need for food recovery. Laura Oxner first got involved with these efforts when she worked at Rock and Wrap It Up. Now, she is the Director of A Simple Gesture’s RePurpose initiative that partners with restaurants, schools, hospitals, and others to redirect potential food waste to food pantries and other community agencies. Oxner witnessed firsthand the impact and disappointment when Guilford County Schools could no longer donate leftover prepared foods to local nonprofits. One organization had relied on the donations to provide culturally appropriate dinners to community members five nights each week and then suddenly could not anymore. Afterschool programs also had relied on donations. There are also additional costs to this food waste. “Landfill space is precious. Tons of food were not being recovered all of the sudden, and there is a cost to that,” Vierling says.
During the COVID pandemic, the need for recovered food became even more evident as grocery shelves went empty, food donations became unpredictable, and restaurant closures eliminated a critical market for producers. “COVID put a wrench in the entire food system.” Oxner explains that “initially short term waste quickly increased as restaurants, air travel, and foodservice stopped. So pivots were made at the production and distributor levels. But food donations during COVID have had their share of inconsistencies as well. COVID has shone its light on the fact that all food resources are valuable. Patrons are more satisfied when they can receive pantry items and a ready-to-eat meal or milk to go with the dry cereal. The EPA and USDA encourage feeding people first before landfills.” Vierling says, “COVID also highlighted the struggles of our most vulnerable communities. We found that our international community was particularly vulnerable during COVID. COVID highlighted needs within these communities, and food recovery is just another way to help meet that need.”
Unfortunately, many organizations are afraid of potential litigation for participating in food recovery efforts. However, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects food donors from criminal or civil liabilities when all appropriate rule and regulations are followed. Oxner says that local programs are particularly critical because “every city, county has differences and you need to figure out the roadblocks and address that specific thing….You build relationships. [Someone] might start with [donating] apples, and later they donate milk. Show them where the food is going, give a receipt, and they trust [you].” Other times, restaurants and other food institutions simply don’t know what can be recovered. Vierling says by creating standard policy and procedures, many other groups could start recovering food. “Everything you recover helps meet an immediate need, saves nonprofits money and resources, and it’s eco-friendly.”
Others agree that food recovery can help to address sustainability issues and reduce the impacts of climate change. Through the food council collaborations, Oxner says she has learned that “some communities are more focused on composting, others on food recovery”, but there are always opportunities to learn from each other. While she says, “it’s not possible to strive for a zero-waste food system, if we recover just 5% more food, we could feed an additional 4 million Americans/day. Food is the single largest input by weight in US landfills and incinerators, more than paper and plastics, and it produces gas (methane) that is 25x more dangerous than all the airplanes (carbon). It’s plausible and economically feasible to recover food. There’s nothing that we have to purchase, really. If you want a quick reduction in greenhouse gasses, this needs to be a priority. We need state policies and federal policies to support our efforts. We are also following EPA guidelines telling us we need to cut in half greenhouse gas emissions. Project Drawdown has identified food waste recovery as [a key] solution to address climate change.”
Building the Case for Change
In 2019, Community Food Strategies engaged students from Duke University School of Law Community Enterprise Clinic and the Sanford School of Public Policy to study the legal and policy implications of the DHHS guidance. The law students developed a legal analysis memorandum examining a Position Statement that DHHS was using to inform their recommendations, while the public policy students developed a strategy for addressing the 2016 DHHS position statement with case study examples of successful prepared food recovery policies in other states. The law students concluded there is a need for further clarification of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) around prepared food recovery (for example, procedures for documenting temperatures of prepared foods) so that communities can safely follow the rules. The public policy group recommended Don’t Waste Food SC, a campaign funded by the state of South Carolina to support communities engaging in food waste and reclamation activities, as one successful model. Ultimately, the law and public policy students developed an exciting collaboration that resulted in beneficial legal and policy research and recommendations to guide the food councils’ next steps.
Once the research projects wrapped up during the fall of 2019, the food councils were eager to share the recommendations with the DHHS Food Protection and Facilities Branch and sought guidance from the North Carolina Local Food Council (NCLFC). Anticipating questions from DHHS about whether these issues are systemic, NCLFC leaders encouraged the food councils to conduct additional research first. NCLFC launched a Food Waste & Recovery Working Group to help.
With support from interns in 2019 and 2020, the working group conducted several additional research projects. First, they surveyed all food council partners right before the COVID-19 pandemic began about prepared food recovery efforts and challenges. They also reviewed all 100 county websites to find out what resources are available for those interested in food recovery. This review revealed a considerable disparity of information and policy interpretation across the state, with some counties encouraging and others discouraging prepared food recovery. After the pandemic hit, the Working Group conducted an additional survey to gather feedback about prepared food recovery related to restaurant shutdowns and the resulting panic due to unclear guidelines. Each of these research activities underscored the need for the standard application of policy across the state as well as resources to clarify standard operating procedures.
"A funding issue like this one is something that at the state level you can really only hear about from local people on the ground doing this work."
Raising Public Awareness
While the research continued, the food councils realized they needed to build public awareness around this issue. In late 2019, they launched a sign-on letter campaign to ask the Governor to declare a Stop Food Waste Month to draw attention to food recovery issues. After pausing their advocacy due to COVID, the councils requested the Governor issue a proclamation in February 2021. The request had signatures from 54 organizations and 117 individuals across North Carolina.
The partners saw a win with the Governor issuing a proclamation for Stop Food Waste Day, which led to an opportunity to celebrate this success with Compass Group and several other national partners. Throughout April 2021, the food councils facilitated a Food Waste Fridays campaign culminating with Stop Food Waste Day on April 28th. Next year, the food councils plan to try again for a proclamation for an annual recurring month-long awareness campaign.
They expressed support for the request because it would help reduce food waste, feed community members, and it was also a one-time rather than recurring expenditure.
Elevating the Issue and Solutions to the State Level
With public support, captivating stories, and plenty of evidence to support the need for improved statewide guidance around food recovery, the food councils were ready to take their concerns to DHHS. NCLFC helped to set up a meeting with the Assistant Director of the Division. Meanwhile, Dr. Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, was approached by the food councils with these challenges. He offered to help by meeting with DHHS and developing language and training. He had recently completed similar work with Count on Me NC, a private-public partnership between DHHS and the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association that developed resources and trainings to help restaurants stay open safely during the pandemic. DHHS acknowledged that standard operating procedures were needed but said they did not have the money to do so, especially due to COVID. However, they agreed that if the food councils could find the money ($50,000) to support Dr. Chapman’s work to collaboratively create a set of multiple standard operating procedures and best practices documents, DHHS would sign off on these procedures as approved best practice.
So, the food councils began looking for foundations’ grant funding, and the NC legislative session was also underway. Longtime Community Food Strategies’ partner and state food council member, NC Alliance for Health (NCAH), an independent, statewide, nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations that convene, mobilize, support, and empower partners to advance equitable policies that reduce health disparities, prevent chronic disease, and promote health, offered to help assess whether there was interest at the state level to fund this work. As Marianne Hedrick Weant, Programs Manager for NCAH, explains, “many times, organizations have ideas for things to happen, and in order for those to happen, there is a policy component, at the state level, needed to make it happen. A funding issue like this one is something that, at the state level, you can really only hear about from local people on the ground doing this work. It’s really important for local food councils to stay in touch with state-level organizations because sometimes the issue they are facing maybe can be solved. Don’t face the problem by yourself. Talking about the issues that you’re having can help people come up with solutions that work.” NCAH thought that the food councils were in a great place as far as all of the research conducted and the widespread engagement of food councils across the state around this issue.
In the early spring of 2021, the food councils and their partners decided to request a one-time state budget appropriation to pay for the development and delivery of the necessary resources and training. They worked with the NCAH to float their request, and NCAH also provided advocacy, education, and lobbying support. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Verla Insko (D) in the House included this request and other funds related to food recovery. On August 12, 2021, the House passed its budget and this request was included as an amendment sponsored by Representatives Patricia Hurley (R) and John Torbett (R). They expressed support for the request because it would help reduce food waste, feed community members, and it was also a one-time rather than recurring expenditure. The several years of research done by the food councils and their partners proved invaluable to developing the budget request and responding to questions from lawmakers.
While the Senate budget did not include the funding, the request has now gone on to the Budget Conference Committee, where legislators will consider it as they negotiate between the House and Senate budgets. After the Conference Committee, the final budget will go on to the Governor, likely by the end of September 2021. In the meantime, food council members know it is critical to continue emphasizing the importance of food recovery issues to the Conference Committee members, hoping they will prioritize the request in the final budget. NCAH, the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) have all lobbied on behalf of the food councils in favor of the bill and the budget appropriation.
Vierling reiterates the cost-benefit at play. “If we can do this safely, then we’re going to recover millions of dollars of food that would otherwise be going to a landfill someplace. So in my mind, for $50,000, you are getting a multimillion-dollar return for food that will be used in the community. When you look at the state of NC, an overwhelming majority of counties are at or above national food insecurity rates, as much as double. That’s prior to the pandemic. Anything we can do to help those communities get safe food is a win on so many levels. [This would] cut down on health care costs related to food insecurity, help seniors choosing between food and medicine, and families struggling to get by. Government benefits have helped some, but they won’t be around forever. We have to be thinking long-term about how we can best serve the state. This is a one-time investment with a great return.”
"In my mind, for $50,000 you are getting a multimillion dollar return for food that’s going to be used in the community."
“In many ways, the local food councils are doing grassroots, storytelling, important groundwork, but it’s hard for an organization to be effective at that and carry a state level advocacy presence.”
“The greatest asset of any community is the intellectual capital of anyone that resides in that community.”
Ready to Address other Food Systems Challenges
“In many ways, the local food councils are doing grassroots, storytelling, important groundwork, but it’s hard for an organization to be effective at that and carry a state-level advocacy presence,” explains Weant. “You just can’t be all things to all people, so making sure everyone works together well and effectively has been key to moving this forward. Even still, this has taken years of work.”
Vierling agrees, “The more that you can collaborate and share information and data, the better you can influence outcomes. We all have our sphere of influence, so the more that we can generate information for that sphere, the greater the likelihood that change will take place. Not every legislator knows the issues as well as the experts. The power of collaboration has a tremendous impact. Each and every one of us has a different skill set. The greatest asset of any community is the intellectual capital of anyone that resides in that community. There are really smart people out there that don’t always have a voice.”
The North Carolina food councils seem to have learned these lessons well, seeking expertise and resource support from many partners to achieve shared goals. The food councils have the on-the-ground experience, trust, and connections necessary to identify issues and develop potential solutions with community members. Community Food Strategies serves as the glue that brings the food councils together to collaborate. The state food council, the NC Local Food Council, facilitates the networking of organizations across the state and supports the food councils with greater access to state government and research opportunities. And partners like NCAH, CFSA, and NCRLA h provide critical advocacy and lobbying support that helps local stories from the food councils to be heard by lawmakers.
Jared Cates, a team member at Community Food Strategies based at CFSA, supported the food councils through many of these efforts. “It was pretty incredible to witness the passion and dedication of this group over the past three years as the community asked for their support in seeking solutions, and they rose to the challenge. The efforts of these food councils are a real example of community-informed policy climbing the ranks to hopefully support the creation of clear state-level standards and resources, leading to less food in landfills and less hungry people across the state.”
Though the outcome of the budget request is still to be determined, their successful collaboration around this issue has inspired the food councils to tackle other food systems issues together. Community Food Strategies is now hosting additional regular Collaborative Calls for food councils to discuss other issues such as workers’ rights, a living wage, and institutional local food procurement. There are no limits to what collaboration can accomplish.