By Alexina Cather
Emily Broad Leib is the Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Deputy Director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law. She founded and directs the Food Law and Policy Clinic, the first law school clinic in the country committed to providing legal and policy solutions to nonprofit and government clients to address the health, economic, and environmental challenges facing the food system.
Broad Leib is recognized as a national leader in Food Law and Policy. In 2016, she was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 5 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink. Broad Leib is a recipient of Harvard President Drew Faust’s Climate Change Solutions Fund and her project, “Reducing Food Waste as a Key to Addressing Climate Change,” was one of seven chosen to confront climate change by leveraging the clinic’s food law and policy expertise to identify systemic solutions that can reduce food waste–a major driver of climate change.
Her work on food waste has been covered in media outlets such as CNN, The Today Show, MSNBC, TIME Magazine, Politico, and the Washington Post.
NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): What drew you to become a food policy advocate? Was it something in your background? Was there a specific trigger or moment?
Emily Broad Leib (EBL): When I was in law school, my main focus was in global human rights. I didn’t know anything about food, really, before I went on my post-law school fellowship to Mississippi. My fellowship was focused on working with the community to improve health and provide opportunities for economic development. Early in my time there, some of my community partners asked for legal assistance regarding local farmers markets. In doing this work, I realized that food is closely linked to health, the economy, and so many of our most important social issues. The Mississippi Delta is an agricultural region, yet there was hardly any production of food for human consumption, and communities faced severe food access challenges. At the same time, many Mississippians were exploring opportunities to produce and sell farm products, but faced legal barriers. Communities around the country were struggling with similar legal and policy questions, and I learned that law students were eager to work on these issues. From that point on, I was captivated by the importance of understanding and shaping the laws that impact the food system.
FPC: What motivates you to continue your advocacy work to increase access to healthy foods and assist small-scale, sustainable food producers?
EBL: One of the most exciting, but also most challenging, aspects of working in the field of food law and policy is that there are so many complex issues demanding research and attention. After learning about some of these issues through my time in Mississippi, I began to work with other communities facing similar challenges, from Memphis, Tennessee to Massachusetts. It has been exciting to work both hand-in-hand with communities to provide resources and legal assistance to them while also identifying and researching some of the most pressing food law challenges.
FPC: What role does law and policy play in the food system?
EBL: I’m often asked this question, and it is really interesting because law and policy play such an enormous role in the food system. Law plays a role in creating incentives or disincentives for people to take specific actions, like growing certain foods or utilizing conservation practices; it can play a role by restricting certain practices, or even providing a more supportive climate for innovation.
Further, the legal structures impacting our food are incredibly complex. At the federal level, more than 15 federal agencies implement 30 different federal statutes that relate to food safety alone! When you get beyond food safety to other issues, such as addressing the impact of food production on clean air and water, or looking at the labeling and marketing of food products, or the issues surrounding farm labor, there are so many laws and agencies that come into play. Beyond the federal level, many food issues are determined by state and local law as well, which is both exciting, because it offers opportunities for creative new policies and programs, but can also make the legal landscape more complex. Our work is often to wade through these laws and policies to try to understand them, make them clearer to our client and partner organizations, and dream up ways that they can be strengthened to better serve our population.
FPC: In your TEDxHarvardLaw talk you commented on how important it is for lawyers to do advocacy work to improve the food system. How do you suggest that attorneys get involved? And what type(s) of work is most critical?
EBL: There are many ways for attorneys to use their legal skills to pursue better outcomes for the food system. Non-lawyers usually picture attorneys in courtroom using litigation as their key tool. This is a crucial tool, but not one of the tools I use in my work. Instead, there are two other types of legal tools that we use. One is education about the law. Often the most helpful thing a lawyer can do is help translate laws into understandable language, in order to help non-lawyers understand what they can and cannot do. Those who are most in need of understanding the laws are not able to pay for legal advice, so providing this service to clients and communities can help break down barriers they face. Another tool is law reform. In so many situations, particularly when it comes to our food system, there are opportunities to strengthen the laws and support better outcomes. Lawyers with interest in this area and any of these skills can play an important role in supporting a stronger food system, whether in their local community or on the national stage.
FPC: You founded and direct the Food Law and Policy clinic, the first law school clinic in the country committed to providing legal and policy solutions to nonprofits and governments to solve food system issues. Can you speak briefly about the clinic and some of the challenges it works on?
EBL: The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) aims to address the health, environmental, and economic consequences of the laws and policies that govern our food system while educating students about these issues. FLPC’s work is focused in four main initiatives: food access and obesity prevention, sustainable food production, food waste, and food policy community empowerment. Within each of these areas, we work with a range of clients that include nonprofit organizations, food policy councils, coalitions, and government agencies at all levels of government. Students get to work hands-on with these clients, and we have the opportunity to research and weigh in on some of the most pressing social issues that are impacted by our food system.
I’m very proud of how we’ve grown and how exciting it is to be at the forefront of this growing field. In addition to the work we do directly with clients and on projects, we also support the growth of the field of Food Law and Policy by hosting conferences and convening leaders, supporting the launch of national food law organizations for both faculty and students, and publicizing project opportunities and career resources. I’d love to see more law schools add their own food law and policy clinics!
FPC: Your work on reducing food waste to address climate change has received international attention. What can you tell our readers about the connection between the two?
EBL: We waste a shocking 40% of the food that we produce in this country. This food waste has huge environmental implications, both because wasting this food means that we waste all the natural resources that go into producing it, and because when food is wasted it mostly ends up in landfills, where it is a massive contributor to methane emissions, which are an extremely noxious greenhouse gas. In addition to positively impacting the environment, addressing food waste has the potential to get food to those in need. Redistributing just 30 percent of all the food lost in the United States could feed every food-insecure American their total diet. Our work over the past few years has focused on a variety of ways that governments at the federal, state, and local level can use policy levers to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste.
Our initial work in this area focused on the confusing and misleading date labels (those “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” labels you see on food products) that lead to unnecessary food waste. Many Americans fear that food is unsafe after the date, but for the large majority of foods there is no safety risk after the date, and instead it is just intended to communicate how long that food will still taste its best. Through our report, The Dating Game, published in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and our short film, EXPIRED, we showed how federal policy change could clarify these dates and also ensure that safe, wholesome past-date food can be sold and donated. We have worked closely with industry leaders to support their work to standardize date labels.
In exciting news, just last week the two biggest industry trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association launched a new initiative to standardize date labels on food packages. Their recommendation to only use one of two labels on food products— “BEST if used by” for quality and “USE by” for safety —is a huge step forward, and is based on the research and publications from our program over the past few years. This is just one example of a policy area of focus for us in the area of food waste.
Also, earlier this month, we released Don’t Waste, Donate: Enhancing Food Donations through Federal Policy, presenting actions the federal government should take to better align federal laws and policies with the goal of increasing the donation of safe surplus food. Don’t Waste, Donate offers 16 actionable recommendations spanning five key areas of federal policy that can increase the amount of safe, wholesome food donated to those in need. If even a quarter of the recommendations in the report were embraced and implemented, millions of pounds of wholesome food would make it to those in need, rather than clogging up our landfills.
In terms of state and local policy, our toolkit Keeping Food out of the Landfill covers a range of policy opportunities that can be implemented by state and local governments looking to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, and has already influenced introduction of exciting new legislation in several states around the country.
FPC: What changes can individuals make at home to reduce food waste and positively impact climate change?
EBL: Individuals also have a huge opportunity to reduce wasted food. Forty-five percent of our nation’s food waste occurs in the home. This means that we can only see major reductions in food waste once consumers change their habits. There are many ways to do this—make a plan and buy only what you are going to use; find ways to use up extra food at the end of the week; be informed about date labels and know that food is generally safe and tasty after those dates; and embrace imperfect looking fruits and vegetables. And tell your friends and neighbors, so they start to pay more attention to their food waste as well!
Individuals also can make a huge difference in the market by virtue of their purchasing power, and their ability to influence food companies. The past few years have seen marked changes in a range of food industry practices because of changing consumer demand and vocal consumers. Asking whether the store where you shop or the restaurant where you dine is treating food as a resource and working to recover food instead of send it to the landfill can go a long way towards showing that consumers care about this issue and want to shop at places that are making more sustainable decisions.
FPC: What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on the food system?
EBL: This is a really difficult question to answer! Because our food system has changed rapidly the past fifty years our laws and policies have not had a chance to catch up. There are so many opportunities to better align these laws and policies with the outcomes we hope to see. The exciting part is that these opportunities really span all levels of government, from the federal level down to the state and local level. A big area of focus for us has been supporting state and local food policy councils, or individuals from diverse backgrounds—government officials, parents, doctors, teachers, and nonprofit organizations—coming together to try to figure out how they can make local food laws better for local food systems, health, or environment. There are almost 250 food policy councils right now in North America, and we have seen many of these councils have success in changing local and state policy to improve their food systems.
At the federal level, we recently released a new report examining the potential for a U.S. “national food strategy” as a way to reduce administrative redundancy, increase legislative and agency coordination, and improve food, health, economic, and environmental outcomes. Many other countries, from the U.K. to Brazil, have implemented national food strategies for similar reasons, and in the U.S., we have national strategies on a range of issues from HIV/AIDS to environmental justice. So we have great models to draw on for how to make such a strategy work!
FPC: How can individuals help influence the Trump administration to develop food policies that are beneficial to people and the environment?
EBL: Based on the limited discussion of food policy on the campaign trail and early in this administration, it’s too soon to tell which food policies will take center stage, what food system gains from the past eight years face elimination, or what new opportunities might emerge. The best way for those who care about the food system to influence the current administration is to stay aware of some of the key legislation and agency activities that have the potential to affect the food system and make your voices heard.
And while there may not be many opportunities for progress at the federal level in the next few years, remember that there are still so many ways to improve the food system using state and local policy and programs. The infrastructure and networks to support such action, such as those food policy councils I mentioned earlier, are firmly in place, and I can say that we look forward to continuing to work with food policy councils and other state and local advocates to identify and implement innovative, effective policies.
FPC: What do you see as sources for positive change in our food system?
EBL: The amount of excitement about this issue from our students, and students around the country, is what gives me the most hope. It seems like there is so much energy amongst students to learn more about the food system and find creative avenues for changes, whether they be legal and policy solutions, social change campaigns, or innovative new social enterprises.
One way that we have been trying to channel this energy amongst law students is by holding the Food Law Student Leadership Summit, which aims to convene interested law students from around the country to learn from national experts about a variety of key food law issues; develop strategies to start or expand student food law organizations; and build a national network of colleagues. We held the first Summit in fall 2015 here at Harvard, then held one in fall 2016 at Drake Law School in Des Moines, which we co-hosted with Drake. We are in the process of planning our 2017 Summit now. The Summits have brought together law students from more than 50 different law schools in 30 states. Student participants in the Summit also launched the Food Law Student Network, and are working to build out opportunities to share job and internship information, conduct projects, and share ideas for events and scholarship. Again the amount of dynamism we have seen from students is truly exciting and makes me feel very optimistic about the future for our food system!
FPC: What is one problem in our food system that you would like to see solved within this generation?
EBL: I hate to be a broken record, but I think that food waste is one of the most pressing, and most solvable, issues facing our food system. Aside from the environmental and hunger relief reasons to care about food waste, there are also opportunities for economic development if we begin to use food as the resource it is. For example, in 2014, my home state of Massachusetts restricted businesses in the state from sending more than one ton of food waste to the landfill per week. In the two years since that regulation went into effect, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reports that they have seen tremendous economic benefits, including the creation of over 900 new jobs and an addition of $77 million to the state economy.
In September 2015, USDA and EPA announced the United States’ first ever food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 % reduction in food waste by 2030. If we continue with the momentum we have seen in the past few years, and if more policymakers and stakeholders rally around the importance of this issue, I think this is a truly solvable issue over the next few decades.
Grew up in: Lower Merion, Pennsylvania
Background and Education: B.A. from Columbia University; J.D. from Harvard Law School
One word you would use to describe our food system: I’m cheating so…fractured-but-fixable
Food policy hero: This is impossible – I have so many! My first food policy heroes were the small farmers and farmers’ market managers I first worked with in Mississippi – they were working so hard to build new opportunities for food production and sales, and kept at it despite the barriers. They taught me so much about the hard work of farming and direct marketing and I think about those lessons all the time in my work.
Your breakfast this morning: Yogurt, granola, and fresh berries
Your last meal would be: Copious amounts of dark chocolate
Worst summer job: I must be one of the lucky ones – I had some amazing summer jobs. Probably the worst was the summer I spent voluntary taking summer classes in high school so that I could get ahead – what a nerd!
Favorite food: Whatever my husband makes; he’s an amazing cook