California Food and Ag Board Takes On Food Waste

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Tuesday was an exhilarating day, as the leaders of California agriculture took on addressing the problem of how much food goes uneaten across the state. The California State Food and Agriculture Board advises the Secretary of Agriculture and the Governor on food matters, and they dedicated a full day meeting to food waste this week.  In my mind, just this commitment to learn and focus on the issue shows leadership.

What can California do to reduce and better manage its food waste? 

We heard about creative programs from Ag Against Hunger and Bob Branham, formerly of General Mills, that highlight innovative ways to capture more of the surplus fresh fruits and vegetables and get them to people.  Expanding programs like these is a perfect match for a goal that the Board and the California Association of Food Banks have already committed to: doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables going to food banks through the Farm to Family program by 2015.

My presentation focused on losses at the farm level, a topic on which NRDC recently commissioned a survey.  I threw out some hair-brain ideas like creating a way for farmers to coordinate how many acres of a particular crop are planted.  This could help smooth the highly variable market fluctuations that lead to crops going unharvested.  Another idea was taking a closer look at the impact of grading standards – the standards that delineate a top grade apple from a lower grade, thus eliminating millions of pounds of small or misshapen produce from sales.  These ideas are a bit out there because they touch some highly sensitive issues, like product pricing and data sharing.

I threw out some more realistic suggestions as well.  For starters, let’s make sure every single one of California’s farmers know about the bill passed last year that allows them to get a 10% tax credit – credit, not deduction – for produce they donate. It showed leadership to pass that bill; now we need to ensure it gets used.  (Note: in trying to link to it, I couldn’t find the right mix of google search terms to even bring up information that the tax credit exists!) 

Second, let’s make food waste prevention a focus area for the Specialty Crops Block Grant to encourage innovators around the state to apply their creativity to this problem and have the means to pilot their ideas. 

And third, let’s study this issue so that we understand the extent of food losses around the state, what’s driving them, the impacts on wasted resources, and steps we can take to improve upon the situation. 

I applaud Secretary Ross, Board Chair Craig McNamara, and the rest of the Board for hosting an engaging dialogue and boldly considering their role in a complex but not intractable problem.  We can fix this, and I look forward to seeing what role the California Department of Food and Agriculture will play in the solutions.

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