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Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food they produce
A third of the world's food goes to waste, but France is attempting to do something about it. Since 2016, large grocery stores in the country have been banned from throwing away unsold food that could be given away. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Paris as part of our "Future of Food" series, which is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
In our ongoing series, the "Future of Food," supported in part by the Pulitzer Center, we explore the problem of excess food waste and one country's potential solution. Author and contributor Mark Bittman has more.
One third of the food produced in the world rots in the field, in transport or is simply thrown away. This is obviously not only a massive waste of food, it's also a big contributor to global warming because as it decomposes in landfills it releases methane. In fact according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, if food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouses gases after the U.S. and China. One country is doing something about food waste. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Paris.
The French take food seriously. The country is famous for its bread, pastries, pates and other delicacies. Lunch is so sacred here that you'll find many stores closed between about noon and 2, so workers can enjoy a long relaxed mid-day meal. The French not only appreciate food, they're committed to not wasting it. In fact, it's the law. Since 2016, large grocery stores have been banned from throwing away unsold food that could be donated to charities. Now, they must have systems in place to donate that food.
We're behind the scenes at one of the country's biggest grocery chains to see how France's landmark food-waste law works.
A truck is loaded up with tomatoes, berries, fruit, brioche and yogurt …about $340 worth of food close to the expiration date…food that in most countries would be thrown away.
They can't sell it any more. But they say it's still good to eat for 5 or 6 more days.
The food is donated to non-governmental organizations –NGOs — and other charities who help feed the poor.
Fruits and vegetables, it's about 200 to 300 Euros worth that we're giving away every day.
Eric Chabert, this supermarket's director, says the law has improved his store's food-waste management.
It also has an impact because if we were to throw away food, we would also increase our workload with the trash bins, which would require additional scheduling of bins removal on site. So it's beneficial on several levels.
Another benefit of donating food: stores can take advantage of a pre-existing tax break on as much as 60% on the inventory value of the donated food.
It's interesting to both be able to help NGOs and get a small financial incentive to compensate for the fact that we're giving away food.
Guillaume Garot is a member of France's Parliament, and the author of France's Food Waste bill. He says the bill has substantially increased food donations from large grocery stores.
Where did the idea come from for this law?
I had seen reports on French TV showing some big supermarkets were taking out trash bins with perfectly edible food in them, seeing that food was being destroyed while at the same time, there are people dying of hunger. So how do you fight this? How do you fight against this scandalous way of producing to throw away? That was the beginning for me.
The French Federation of Food Banks agrees the law is working. It's a major middleman in the grocery store-to-charity food chain. Every morning, more than 2,700 supermarkets send nearly out-of-date food to nearly 80 warehouses around the country, rescuing 46,000 tons a year that would otherwise be thrown away.
Donations to food banks are up more than 20 percent, according to the government.
Here at the food bank, it's a mostly volunteer operation, and a race against the clock to collect, sort and then distribute food while it's still good to the thousands of local NGOs.
Some will use the food to prepare meals — 226 million a year according to the Food Bank. Others like the Salvation Army sort and distribute the donated food directly to the needy.
The people who need some food are really happy to have some fresh product.
In France, 1 out of 5 people say they have a hard time eating enough food every day, according to a recent poll. For Angela, the Salvation Army is a life saver. She asked us not to use her last name. She has 3 kids to feed at home so she comes here once a week to get the fresh vegetables, meat, yogurts and cheese she says she can't afford otherwise.
The children are young, they cannot be working. My husband and I are unemployed. It means a lot because before, when we didn't know about this place, we used to spend a lot to buy food in stores. This represents a lot because with this we are able to live, you know.
The law has had ripple effects — raising consumer awareness and helping inspire new start-ups and apps like Too Good to Go.
The app tells me about a Paris bakery where, close to closing time, I can get what they call a magic bag of their products for about three dollars and thirty cents, a sizable discount. So for three Euros, three euros, I got: let's start with the pain au chocolat; I've got some croissants in here; got a loaf of bread, looks delicious; and got what looks like a really good ham sandwich.
The law is the first of its kind in the world. But for all its positive effects, it has been criticized for not ensuring that all stores are complying. It calls for stiff penalties (about $4,000) each time a store is caught throwing away donatable food, but so far no one has been fined.
Some of the critics include NGOs themselves, who say they sometimes get food they can't use.
I'm not sure I would be comfortable eating a yellow broccoli.
We saw for ourselves. Broccoli sent by one grocery store was not fit to eat. Aline Chassagnot is a social coordinator with the Salvation Army.
They must be green, not yellow.
Okay, so what do you do with this?
Normally, it must go to the, to the garbage.
On this day, we saw three trash bins of food thrown away.
Presumably, the supermarket that donated that food received a tax benefit regardless. So the question is how do you make sure that supermarkets and other participants aren't gaming the system?
It's very clear that products arriving at the NGO when the consumption date has expired, fresh products especially, must not be donated. There is no doubt a need to intensify checks, public checks, on the way large supermarkets are donating.
Another problem, says Manon Cuillé, coordinator of an NGO called "Zero Waste," is that the law fails to address sources of food waste other than grocery stores.
for us there are many more solutions and measures to be adopted to prevent this food waste in the first place
According to France's National Environmental Agency, retail and distribution — including grocery stores — only accounts for 14% of food waste in France.
Agriculture accounts for 32 percent, followed by food processing at 21 percent and consumers at 19 percent. Restaurants contribute 14 percent.
None of these other sources are addressed in the law. As such, Cuille says she doubts the French government can meet its goal when it comes to reducing food waste.
They have a pretty ambitious goal, which is to reduce by 50 percent food waste before 2025. They're still lacking a lot of important obligations for agriculture and food industry. Also promote more education for the consumer or in schools.
I do believe we need to widen the actors involved in fighting food waste.
It's a global problem, says Garot. And France aspires to be a model for the world.
Today, countries as different as Peru, Finland and Malaysia but also some countries in Africa, are closely looking at what we've been doing in France. So what's important is to act together in the same direction.
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Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
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