PROVIDENCE — It may get a lot easier to donate excess food in Rhode Island, as a bill that allows institutions to give away food cleared its House committee with the backing of many key stakeholders.
After resisting similar bills in previous years, the state Department of Health, the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association all support the legislation to reduce food waste and curb hunger.
“We want to make sure food goes to its highest and best use and that is feeding people,” said Eva Agudelo, founder of Hope’s Harvest RI, a “gleaner” service of volunteers who deliver excess agricultural products from farms to hunger-relief organizations.
The bill (H5322) is the result of the 2018 Task Force on Food Donation and Food Waste. The House commission found that a fear of lawsuits prevented restaurants, schools, and producers from donating excess food.
The proposed Rhode Island Food Donation Act would ease that worry by stating that individuals, schools, grocers, restaurants, hotels, caterers, farmers, hospitals, and "food-makers" can donate to gleaners, food pantries, and the public with immunity from criminal and civil liability.
The food can also be donated after its sell-by date or expiration date as long as it is fit for human consumption.
“Sell-by dates have nothing to do with food safety. They only deal with the quality of the food,” Sarah Bratko of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association testified at a Feb. 27 House hearing.
The bill would also allow state health inspectors to educate food establishments about their liability protection and to promote food donation during regular inspections.
According to the department, about 13 percent of Rhode Islanders or some 56,000 households experience food insecurity.
“At a time when there are significant numbers of Rhode Island families that do not have a sufficient diet and are in need of food, this should at least help in providing more offerings for them,” Steven Arthurs, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, wrote in submitted testimony.
The legislation is also aimed at reducing the 100,000 tons of food scrap that is buried annually in the Central Landfill in Johnston. Food scrap makes up the largest source of waste in landfills, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Nationally, school districts are experimenting with programs to send leftovers home with students or to deliver them to families in need. The bill would likely allow such a program, along with so-called “share tables” that allow students to swap or donate uneaten food.
The bill was unanimously approved April 10 by the House Committee on Health, Education & Welfare. It has been placed on the House calendar for April 25. There has been no action on comparable legislation in the Senate.