If a new tax bill could help save even 1 percent of the 96 billion pounds of food wasted and dumped in U.S. landfills each year, the nation's largest hunger relief agency could double the amount of food it takes to food banks and churches.

The bill is good for farmers and good for people who need the food they grow, said Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research at America's Second Harvest.

"We need to have the voices of needy Americans heard at the national level," O'Brien said in a phone interview from his Chicago office Friday.

The Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Act proposes to enable farmers to donate food to charitable organizations that feed people by giving them a charitable deduction on their income taxes. Current tax law and accounting practices for small farmers mean that corporate food industries can donate food and deduct a worthwhile amount, while small farmers cannot.

For instance, O'Brien said, if Kraft donates a truckload of cheese to Second Harvest for distribution, it gets a tax credit.

"If a dairy farmer donates the same thing to us, he gets nothing," O'Brien said. "For farmers, this is an issue. Some of them are not too far from needing to use a food bank themselves."

The Good Sam Tax Act, proposed in the Senate by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is in two visible Senate bills and also a House version. It's incorporated in the Senate Bill 312, a tax-relief bill aimed at farmers and fishermen that was introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, is a ranking member of the committee and supports the legislation as good for farmers, said his communications director Bill Lombardi.

"He sees it as a benefit to producers and farmers," Lombardi said, "and also to people who need the food."

Sen. Conrad Burns also supports the legislation and is a co-sponsor of SB312, said J.P. Donovan, the Republican senator's Montana press secretary. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg said he supports the concept and principles behind the legislation, but he's still looking at it as written.

The tax act would help farmers specifically by allowing them to set the fair market value of their crops to determine their charitable contribution. It also opens up the categories of businesses eligible to take deductions, and it would codify the notion that the taxpayer, not the Internal Revenue Service, should determine the value of the donated food.

The notion of deductions for donations rings true for farming in the West and in western Montana, where surplus potatoes are causing hardship for farmers. Within the past two weeks, Ronan farmers Steve and Tana Tobol donated 100,000 pounds of potatoes to the Montana Food Bank Network, which distributes food to food banks and feeding programs around Montana.

The Tobols are among the western Montana seed-potato farmers who face terrific losses because their potato crops are not needed by planters this spring because of surpluses. However, their 40,000 sacks of russets are among 3.5 million sacks of seed potatoes grown by Montana farmers. Those farmers, the Tobols said recently in Missoula, can't afford the expenses associated with transporting the crops to food banks; a tax credit would be of great benefit. A federal potato program is paying farmers $1 a sack when the crop is diverted to other uses, such as cattle feed, but that reimbursement is small.

Val Morrison, program manager of the Montana Food Bank Network, said the trend for food distribution to food banks is toward fresh food. The network, based in Missoula, works with the cannery at the Montana State Prison to can fresh food for distribution around Montana.

"We're also trying to work with Steve (Tobol) to see if he can store some potatoes for us until we can get them to the cannery," she said.

The network distributed 2.5 million pounds of food around the state last year. It went to 181,000 households, according to statistics collected by Executive Director Peggy Grimes.

America's Second Harvest, which distributes 1.3 billion pounds of food to 50,000 agencies such as the network, estimates that between 200,000 and 800,000 people are turned away each year because of shortages on food bank shelves, said O'Brien. The Good Sam Tax Act, he said, has no active opposition except inattention. Its cost, about $406 million in three years, is small compared to the good it could do, he said.

"You can't say it costs too much," he said. "What is the cost when Americans don't have enough food to eat?"

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com.

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