Column: France takes powerful step to combat hunger

A woman peers into an empty dairy refrigerator at a grocery store, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

France recently passed a law that requires supermarkets over a certain size (4,305 square feet) to donate their unsold food to charities and food banks instead of throwing it out. France throws away more than seven million tons of food every year, with 11 percent of that total coming from grocery stores. Given the amount of food waste that occurs in many countries, coupled with the abundance of people who struggle to feed themselves and their families, this is a welcome act.  

The United States also struggles greatly with food waste. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the country goes uneaten. That level of waste is inconceivable, especially when nearly one in six Americans are living in food insecure households, which struggle to put food on the table at some point in the year. That’s more than 49 million people. Food waste is a problem that deeply affects our society on many levels and needs to be properly addressed.

Food thrown away by the average consumer is, of course, a large part of the problem. It is estimated that the average person throws away as many as 20 pounds of food every month. While it can be difficult, it is important for each and every citizen to lower this number. This could range from not buying as much at the store to eating leftovers more often. These steps don’t just help combat hunger—they also make economic sense because throwing out food is throwing out money.

Reducing consumer food waste is essentially a change in lifestyle. If we are to be serious about addressing this problem, it might be helpful to have programs in schools to educate kids on how to reduce the food they throw out or start other initiatives aimed at addressing the problem. It will no doubt be a long process to achieve this level of cultural shift but fighting hunger in the U.S. is worth it.

The U.S. does not have any laws requiring stores or restaurants to donate food. In fact, France is the first country to enact such a law. We do, however, have a couple of pieces of legislation that encourage it. One of these is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This protects a business that donates if people get sick from the food. As long as the donation was made in good faith, the business cannot be sued. There are also tax incentives for large corporations that donate food. There are tax incentives for small businesses as well, but those are not permanent and have to be renewed. Because these smaller entities do not know for sure whether they will get a tax break, they often refrain from donating.

This reluctance to donate does not come from any malice on the part of business owners, but rather the economic drawbacks of charity. To donate food a business has to package it, ship it and coordinate deliveries. This costs time and money, so it is often cheaper to simply throw the food out. Small businesses refraining from donating to protect their bottom line is understandable. However, when larger ones are guaranteed tax incentives for this kind of charity and can generally afford to spend a little extra to help some people in need it’s disheartening that so many decline to do so. 

This is where the U.S. should take a cue from France. Some may resist the idea of the government forcing businesses to donate food, especially with the potential for economic drawbacks, but at the same time the government has tried many ways to encourage donations, and yet too many still refrain from doing so. While consumers may be the greatest source of food waste, the NRDC estimates that if supermarkets and grocery stores reduced the food thrown out by just 15 percent and sent that amount on to charities, it would be enough to feed over 25 million people.

That’s 25 million people who won’t have to worry about their kids not being able to eat just because their job doesn’t pay well. 25 million people who might have an opportunity to set aside some money and get caught up on bills, pay off some debt and even send their kids to college. Reaching a goal like this would have such a profound impact on so many lives that the U.S. would be remiss if it did not pass a law similar to France to combat hunger. Regardless, we should all take steps to fight hunger at home and around the world in any way we can.


Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.