By Tori Oto, J.D. ’22
Over the course of a year with the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), I not only learned the substance of food law and practiced the professional skills I sought to, but I also gained an understanding of what a career in legal advocacy means and looks like day to day.
I participated in two FLPC projects in the fall and spring semesters of my 3L year. The first was The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas project, which works with food banks in countries around the world to promote food donation policies that can better divert surplus, wasted food to people facing food insecurity. My team worked with partners in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. We provided a range of services, including developing country-specific Legal Guides and Policy Recommendations and providing guidance on implementing our recommendations.
In drafting Legal Guides and Policy Recommendations, my teammates and I conducted independent international legal research and outlined the food donation legal landscape in these countries. We gathered feedback from our in-country food bank partners and conducted numerous meetings with food system stakeholders (i.e., farmers and food business owners). Throughout these engagements, we learned about country-specific barriers to food donation to address in the Atlas Legal Guides and Policy Recommendations. For example, we learned that a significant hurdle to changing food donation laws in Kenya is government support. In Kenya, the government emphasizes ground-up empowerment and sees food donation as a band-aid solution. This inspired us to reiterate the long-term benefits of good food donation policy, noting that food donation infrastructure is essential to any effective food system.
The law student members of the Atlas team were far more than backup for the FLPC supervisors. We were thrown into the mix, leading partner and stakeholder calls and strategizing advocacy next steps. I was encouraged to take ownership of my projects and to step outside my professional comfort zone with all the support I needed to thrive when I did. More than developing professional skills like creative problem solving and oral advocacy, I saw and experienced a model for how equitable advocacy is done.
The second project I joined, a U.S. federal food waste initiative, was equally insightful. Our team drafted, edited, and published a report entitled Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste in the 2023 Farm Bill. The report offers recommendations to the USDA and Congress on ways to use the Farm Bill to reduce, recover, and recycle surplus food and food waste across the supply chain. In working on this report, I saw first-hand how advocacy is coordinated as part of a coalition and ultimately executed by advocates in Washington.
Just like with the Atlas project, I was treated as a professional equal on the federal food waste team. My and my teammates’ opinions about what recommendations FLPC should advocate for in the upcoming Farm Bill were valued. Beyond simply incorporating the opinions of supervisors and our coalition partners into our work, we were encouraged to develop informed points of view and to use that knowledge to guide conversations during which FLPC and our partners developed recommendations on how to restructure the American food system to be more equitable and environmentally sound.
In addition to supporting the Farm Bill report, I worked with partners to advocate for other federal bills that would reduce food loss and waste. I responded to partner emails and met with Congressional staff, providing the legal analysis portion of advocacy conversations. I realized that over the course of two semesters, I had become an expert in U.S. food donation law. I went from knowing very little about food donation in the fall, to confidently communicating my expertise to Congressional staff in the Spring. I saw how gratifying advocacy work in this space can be after watching members of Congress join food waste bills as co-sponsors.
The two semesters I spent with the Food Law and Policy Clinic were the best part of my law school education by far. While I certainly learned more about United States agriculture and food system policy than I could through any traditional law school course and developed all the professional skills I set out to, the most significant contribution to my experience was the mentorship I received. Due in large part to my time with FLPC, I can be certain that when I finally enter the workforce next year as a food systems and environmental advocate, I’ll know what to expect and will have the skill set necessary to succeed.