Donating unused food matter of choice, coordination for businesses

Olive Garden employees Tiffany Talbot and Seth Goldstein package unused soup to be donated to a local hunger relief organization. (Max Efrein/Courier)

Olive Garden employees Tiffany Talbot and Seth Goldstein package unused soup to be donated to a local hunger relief organization. (Max Efrein/Courier)

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Olive Garden employees Tiffany Talbot and Seth Goldstein help St. Vincent De Paul volunteer Cindy Manelly load Olive Garden food donations into her car.

Some businesses donate their unused food to hunger relief programs. Others throw it away.

It’s something the founder of Food Donation Connection (FDC), Bill Reighard, noticed more than 25 years ago when he was the senior director of worldwide food quality for Pizza Hut.

“He knew that they threw away a lot of pizzas and he also knew there was a need in the community to feed people,” said Steve Dietz, director of business development for FDC.

Reighard was also a keen entrepreneur and knew that Congress had passed incremental tax benefits in 1976 for companies that choose donating over landfilling.

With these two points in mind, he started a for-profit company that specifically connects successful food establishments with nearby hunger relief organizations and provides simple steps on how to efficiently and safely save, package and pass along food that would otherwise go to waste.

In return for this coordination, FDC receives a portion of the tax benefit.

“For example, we can save a company $1 million in tax savings, we get a very small percentage to fund us and the [hunger relief organization] gets all the food for free,” Dietz said.

Naturally, Pizza Hut was one of FDC’s first partners. Over the past 25 years, the pizza chain has donated about 100 million pounds of food through its Harvest Program, according to a news release. This food has a market value of about $547.7 million.

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This estimate, based on figures from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.

This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change (www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm).

Other companies began realizing the clear benefits of adopting some sort of food harvesting program and have since either contracted with businesses like FDC or found ways to coordinate the effort themselves.

Some of FDC’s clients now include Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, KFC, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A, Einstein Bros Bagels and Cracker Barrel.

“We do this because it simply doesn’t make sense to us to waste food,” said Chris Arnold, spokesperson for Chipotle Mexican Grill. “We would much rather provide leftover food that is perfectly fine to eat, but that can’t be sold, to people who are hungry. The program in which we participate makes it very easy to use leftover food in a way that is really productive, and that presents no real challenges or complications to our restaurant operations.”

Not all businesses perceive it this way. Many still toss their leftover, untouched food at the end of the day, commonly citing food safety concerns and the potential legal repercussions of someone getting sick from the food and suing them.

While liability technically exists, there is a significant amount of protection under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which was passed in 1996 to encourage food donation to nonprofit organizations by minimizing liability.

The act essentially states that even if someone gets sick from donated surplus food, the donor is not liable except if there’s gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined within the law as meaning “voluntary and conscious conduct (including a failure to act) by a person who, at the time of the conduct, knew that the conduct was likely to be harmful to the health or well-being of another person.”

“To our knowledge, and to the NRA (National Restaurants Association) and these other big restaurant groups — at least since the Good Samaritan Act has been put into place — there has never been a donor or an agency sued over somebody getting sick by donated food,” Dietz said.

Dietz, who is constantly tracking the trend, believes that donating food to move toward more of a zero-waste business model is gaining momentum throughout the food industry.

“I think the pressure from the public sector is becoming tougher and tougher, and the cost of composting is getting higher and higher,” Dietz said. “We have some markets that pay well over $200 a ton to have compost hauled away and all of a sudden that adds up to some real big money.”