Edible waste tax break campaign gaining traction with cities

The Vancouver Sun, Nov 17, 2015 - A national campaign in support of federal tax incentives for companies that donate edible surplus food to charities for the poor is gaining traction with municipalities in B.C. and across Canada.

Richmond council has joined Burnaby, the Township of Langley, the City of North Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary and others calling on newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to offer financial rewards to companies that help divert food that would otherwise be discarded.

The campaign is being spearheaded by the National Zero Waste Council, a working group that includes representatives from municipal governments, business and Food Banks Canada, founded by Metro Vancouver and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The zero waste council estimates the equivalent of 300 million meals — edible food valued at $31 billion — is discarded in Canada every year. That is food that could be used to address food insecurity that affects 1.6 million Canadian households, they say.

But the plan is suffering from significant blowback from an unlikely quarter: anti-poverty groups who worry that incentivizing charity further entrenches a system of giving that robs the poor of the dignity of choosing and buying their own food.

The anti-poverty group Put Food in the Budget condemned the tax incentive plan as “morally repugnant” and misguided.

Vancouver anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson recalls seeing rotten and inedible food delivered to food banks.

“Giving garbage to the poor, what’s new about that?” asked Swanson. “It is garbage, you know.”

Even if donated food is safe and edible, food charity does nothing to address the root cause of food insecurity, which is poverty, she said.

“If you want to reduce food insecurity, you have to raise welfare rates and the minimum wage so people have enough money to buy their own food,” she said. “People should be able to buy their own food in a country this rich.”

“I remember when the food banks started to open as a temporary solution,” said Swanson. “That was 30 years ago and look what we have now.”

According to Food Banks Canada, about 850,000 Canadians use food banks each month.

“I understand anti-poverty groups when they say they need more permanent solutions, but I say that it is absolutely unconscionable to have so much edible, safe and healthy food being discarded, even if we recognize that it’s not the final answer,” said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, chair of the zero waste council. “It can be used, and it can be used very effectively.”

For Brodie, the plan ticks a lot of boxes, from lower carbon emissions and waste management costs to reducing hunger.

“It will reduce the amount of food that local government has to deal with as waste and it will save companies money by reducing their disposal costs,” said Brodie. “It ticks the environmental box, because organics still get into the landfill and it’s a great generator of greenhouse gases.”

According to a City of Richmond report, the food industry could reduce operating costs by 15 to 20 per cent by reducing food waste and improve nutrition in food-insecure homes, improving public health.

“I understand that this is not a panacea (for food insecurity), but it is an interim step that will get safe, healthy edible food into the hands and mouths of people who need it,” said Brodie. “It isn’t meant to be a total solution, it never was.”

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