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Montgomery's Niyeti Shah Helps Pass a Federal Bill to Reduce Food Waste and Feed the Hungry

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted January 7, 2023

Montgomery High School Graduate Niyeti Shah (Class of 2011) was a major player in getting a federal bill passed in December. While charities are struggling to feed the hungry — especially now with inflation, supply chain issues, and the pandemic — American businesses are throwing out tons of good food everyday. The bill, signed into law by President Biden on January 5, provides a way for companies to donate surplus food and groceries.

Food often goes to waste because business owners are afraid someone might get sick and come back to sue them. The fact that they follow food safety laws and best practices would not have protected the businesses.

Thanks to Shah's work, companies will be able to donate their surplus food and grocery products to nonprofits while having civil and criminal liability protection.

Basically, bipartisan “The Food Donation Improvement Act” provides a way for nonprofits, farmers, schools, restaurants, and others to assist the hungry in their neighborhoods, without increasing cost to taxpayers and while protecting the donors. The Secretary of Agriculture now is expected to issue regulations that clarify the quality and labeling standards for food products donated under the act.

Niyeti Shah, Montgomery High School Class of 2011, with a copy of her "Fight Food Waste and Insecurity through Food Donation Improvement Act" program.

Montgomery's very own Shah, who leads social impact at WeightWatchers, kicked off advocacy work to solve this problem once and for all. Thirteen months ago, Shah began work with Harvard Law School to achieve what would appear to be a simple goal — to reduce food waste while bringing more healthy food to communities. The goal became a bill, and the bill was approved with bipartisan support by both the House and the Senate in December.

The Food Donation Improvement Act

Despite the fact that 42 million people were expected to experience hunger in the last year alone, 35 percent of all food in the U.S. is thrown out and goes to waste, according to Shah. The Food Donation Improvement Act is a critical solution to address these pressing problems.

"It takes an important first step in addressing senseless food waste," she says. "By updating the original Emerson Act, qualified organizations across the U.S. can provide food directly to their communities helping us work towards a more sustainable food system."

The act will amend an existing piece of legislation to clarify and broaden protections for food donors by allowing more types of food donations, including items offered from food businesses directly to hungry people who need the food.

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“Despite Congress’s work to support food donation with the 1996 passage of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, over time the act became outdated. By passing the Food Donation Improvement Act, Congress has spoken again in support of food donation by clarifying and updating the Emerson Act to meet today’s challenges,” she said.

Shah, a Food Systems Advocate, works for Weight-Watchers International (WW) as senior manager of social impact. She supports the Healthy Living Coalition and WW’s social impact including the global WW Wellness Impact Award and WW’s Food is Health work.

On "Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg," Dani speaks with Niyeti Shah, Senior Manager of Social Impact at WeightWatchers International. They discuss the recent passing of the Food Donation Improvement Act, which will make it easier for businesses to donate surplus food; its potential for curbing both hunger and waste; and the work that went into what Shah calls "a monumental win for food policy.”

The effort to push this bill forward was largely driven by a coalition of 70-plus nonprofit and corporate leaders, including WeightWatchers, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, NRDC, Grubhub, Food Tank, and more. The group released an open letter in November 2021 urging Congress to pass the legislation, and hosted a day of action on the Hill.

The FDIA was also supported by 60,000-plus citizens through a petition, which was delivered to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), on the day of action. “We don’t have a shortage of food. We have a mismatch between abundance and need. A mismatch we can solve by passing this bill,” said Rep. Jim McGovern on the House floor. McGovern sponsored the bill.

The bill passed as a “standalone bill” (no small feat) in December, with unanimous bi-partisan consent in the US Senate and then via majority vote in the House of Representatives.

Beginning January 5, the bill provides liability protection and allows grocers, schools, restaurants, agriculture producers and others to donate food directly to their local communities (versus going through non-profits) — redirecting 35 percent of wasted food to those in need.

As Shah softly said to her mother (Rupal Shah of Skillman): “Today I passed a bill!”

How Does This Act Impact Our Local Community

For New Jersey, this law will clarify liability protection for donors leading to decreased food waste and increased food donations to partners such as Share My Meals, a local food recovery organization serving Princeton, Montgomery, Lawrenceville, and Trenton, Shah says.

This is needed now more than ever. A new study by Hunger Free America reveals that a massive number of New Jersey residents do not have enough food to eat. Federal aid cuts and inflation are driving food hardship up as much as 89 percent in New Jersey, compared to 30 percent nationwide.

The number of people without enough food over one seven-day period spiked by 89 percent in New Jersey, and 30 percent nationwide between October of 2021 and October of 2022, according to a report by the nonprofit group Hunger Free America, based on an analysis of federal data.

Hunger Free America attributes the surge in food insecurity to the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit and universal school meals, coupled with the impact of inflation. Many federal benefit increases have either gone away entirely, or are being ramped down, even as prices for food, rent, healthcare, and fuel continue to soar.

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According to the USDA food insecurity data, 8.5 percent of New Jersey residents, or 751,000 thousand people, lived in food insecure households from 2019-2021. This includes 10.4 percent of children in the state (203,925), 7.2 percent of employed adults (309,725), and 6.2 percent of older residents (128,649).

What Did Shah Do Exactly?

Over the course of the year, Shah: Built a coalition of 75 supporting organizations including NRDC, Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic, Grubhub, Kroger, and others. She launched a national petition, garnering more than 60,000-signers.

She partnered with Food Tank to host an Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill featuring Celebrity Chef Tom Colicchio and Representative Jim McGovern to educate Congressional Offices and to provide advocacy training for organizations.

And, finally, she signed multiple co-sponsors for the bill: including Montgomery's Representative in Congress Tom Malinowski (who finished his term in December after losing to Tom Kean-R) and Senator Cory Booker-D.

It is interesting to speculate just what she might do next. ■


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