Dear EarthTalk: I work at a fast food place and I am appalled by the amount of unpurchased food we throw away. The boss says we can’t give it away for legal reasons. Where can I turn for help on this, so the food could instead go to people in need?
—Ryan Jones, Richland, WA
Many restaurants, fast food or otherwise, are hesitant to donate unused food due to concerns about liability if people get sick after eating it—especially because once any such food is out of the restaurant’s hands, who knows how long it might be before it is served again. But whether these restaurants know it or not, they cannot be held liable for food donated to organizations, and sometimes all it might take to change company policy would be a little advocacy from concerned employees.
A 1995 survey found that over 80 percent of food businesses in the U.S. did not donate excess food due to liability concerns. In response, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which releases restaurants and other food organizations from liability associated with the donation of food waste to nonprofits assisting individuals in need. The Act protects donors in all 50 states from civil and criminal liability for good faith donations of "apparently wholesome food"—defined as meeting "all quality and labeling standards imposed by Federal, State and local laws and regulations even though the food may not be readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other condition."
While homeless shelters, elder care organizations and boys and girls clubs are frequent beneficiaries of food donations, the most common recipients are food banks and food rescue programs. Food banks, according to California’s CalRecycle website, "collect food from a variety of sources, save the food in a warehouse, then distribute it to hungry families and individuals through local human service agencies." They usually collect less perishable items like canned goods, which can be stored and used any time. In contrast, food rescue programs typically trade in perishable and prepared foods, distributing it to agencies that feed hungry people, usually later that same day. Mama’s Health, a leading health education website, maintains an extensive free database of food banks and food rescue programs state-by-state.