MONTPELIER -- Tax incentives should be expanded to prompt restaurants, grocery stores and farmers to donate excess food to the hungry and cut into the estimated 70 billion pounds of food that goes to waste each year, U.S. senators including Patrick Leahy say in proposing such an expansion.

The incentives were first passed in 2006. John Sayles, chief executive at the Barre-based Vermont Foodbank, called them "absolutely critical to what we do" because they help prompt donations of about a quarter of the food the organization distributes each year.

Leahy joined Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., this past week to introduce the bill to continue and expand the tax incentive.

Leahy called the program "an efficient way to match a pressing need with valuable food resources that otherwise would be wasted. ... We must do more to ensure that no one in America goes hungry, and increasing the amount of food available to food banks is a vital step toward meeting that goal."

The senators said food banks across the country have been stretched thin since the Great Recession. More than 50 million Americans were living in food insecure households, meaning they had difficulty providing food, a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found.

Meanwhile, "as much as 40 percent of the food that is produced, grown and transported in the United States will never be used," a statement from Leahy's office said.


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It said some businesses find it cheaper and easier to throw food away rather than to donate it.

The law was previously reauthorized through the end of 2013 and already has prompted the U.S. restaurant industry to increase food donations 137 percent, Leahy's office said.

The new bill would make the tax incentives permanent and extend it to farmers.

Fran Voigt, president of the New England Culinary Institute, a Montpelier-based cooking school that operates a restaurant and bakery in the city, said he and other NECI officials support the tax incentive law and its expansion.

But he said it probably would not make a big difference for NECI.

"We've donated food from the start to many organizations," Voigt said. "Our incentive for doing it was never a tax benefit, but to the extent it motivates other people (to make donations), we're all for it. Our difficulty would be keeping track of the donations and putting a monetary value on them."