Tax credit urged to spur food bank donations

Incentive for businesses would reduce 'endless' food waste, help feed the needy, advocates say

Marilyn Hermann

Marilyn Hermann

The chair of Food Banks BC is backing a proposal to create a federal tax break that encourages businesses to donate more food to local charities.

Marilyn Herrmann, who is also executive director of the Surrey Food Bank Society, says there are “endless” amounts of usable food that could be retrieved from restaurants, grocers and other suppliers that now throw it out.

The National Zero Waste Council proposes the federal government create a new tax credit for businesses linked to the fair market value of food they donate to charities such as food banks, shelters and soup kitchens.

Herrmann said while many businesses already strive to donate usable food, such an incentive could prod others to both save on taxes and help put more unused food to good use.

“It’s not even waste, it’s perfectly good food,” Herrmann said. “Something that may just be undersized according to a grocery chain’s standard doesn’t mean it’s bad food.”

Lower Mainland food banks regularly retrieve huge skids of food that producers or retailers have been unable to sell fast enough.

“Sometimes we come back with incredible donations,” Herrmann said, adding dairy producers sometimes overproduce yogurt and donate large volumes that are too close to their expiry dates.

It’s a retail reality that consumers won’t buy those products.

“People are so hung up on these best before dates that as soon as it hits the day, they just throw it out without even checking the quality of the product.”

A report by the National Zero Waste Council doesn’t estimate how much lost tax revenue a new credit might cost Ottawa.

But it projects a range of benefits that would result from a more efficient food system.

One of those benefits would be less organic waste going into landfills – Metro Vancouver estimates the drop in garbage resulting from the tax credit would mean reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 275,000 cars off the road.

Metro Vancouver regional district directors vote next Friday on whether to endorse the idea.

BC Restaurant and Foodservice Association president Ian Tostenson said the biggest worry for restaurateurs donating food to charities is ensuring it stays food safe and doesn’t make anyone sick.

“If they can get through the issues of food safety and sanitation, I think it’s a great idea,” Tostenson said. “I don’t think business even needs a tax incentive to do it. I think they’d just do it if they can do it in a way that doesn’t create liability.”

Other critics have suggested the tax break could lead to businesses dumping unusable food on food banks, and increasing their disposal costs.

“There definitely are challenges to this, no question,” Herrmann said. “You have to have the capacity to handle the volumes of food that are being offered to you.”

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who chairs Metro’s zero waste committee, said the tax credit would be worthwhile, even if it’s not a silver bullet curing food waste.

“Our hope is this would lead to a far bigger uptake and get a lot of that edible food into the hands of charities that can divide it up and use it effectively.”

An estimated 170,000 tonnes of edible food – equivalent to 300 million meals – ends up in Canadian landfills every year.

In monetary terms, that’s an estimated $31 to $107 billion of waste in the production, shipping and fair market value of the food.

“We know how much good food is wasted every day,” Metro board chair Greg Moore said. “For some groups, the tax incentive will make a huge difference.”

Meanwhile, Herrmann and Food Banks BC are also pressing the BC Liberals to keep a promise they made in the 2013 election campaign.

The party’s platform committed the provincial government to “give growers a tax credit of 25 per cent of the wholesale value of food donated to a food bank.”

Herrmann said that would be a useful incentive that both helps farmers and encourages them to donate produce and fruit that could help feed the needy.

Undersized apples that are good but too small for retailers are a prime example of what might be contributed in larger volumes instead of being dumped by the truckload.

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