It’s a liability: Why restaurants are throwing away 22 billion pounds of food

A pile of food waste, but is it all waste? (Photo: Wiki)


It’s hard to imagine the feeling of depungness that comes over a person when they are asked to throw away any amount of food that is both unspoiled and untouched. I never really knew this feeling existed until I began working at Chick-fil-A, and I was told to throw away twelve salads, six wraps, eight fruit cups, and four yogurt parfaits at the end of my first Saturday shift.

It was routine protocol, and my fellow team members didn’t bat an eyelash as I gawked at the perfectly edible food I was dumping into the trash. I questioned this practice many times throughout the next year, but no one else seemed to be invested in the issue. I was simply told that employees might purposely overproduce menu items if they were allowed to take them home and that donating food to the homeless was a huge liability. 

The Great Depression and WWII taught Americans to salvage and put scraps of food to good use, but standards and expectations for what we consume have risen greatly over the years. We pick up every apple in the produce section searching for one with vibrant skin and lacking bruises, and we throw away a box of crackers just because it’s one day out of the printed expiration date (7). According to the FDA, around forty percent of the food available to us in the U.S. is wasted, which equates to nearly 131 billion pounds of food piling in landfills each year (1).

Many people believe that tossing extra food is not a problem, because it will eventually biodegrade. However, global food waste impacts the environment dramatically by producing nearly thirty-three billion tons of greenhouse gasses annually (3). Even those who remain unbothered by the effect they have on the planet have reason to be concerned.  The U.S. economy loses about 218 billion dollars by discarding all of those kitchen scraps, uneaten prepared foods, bruised fruits and vegetables, and spoiled products. At least 22 billion pounds of the food waste is produced by restaurant services alone. Yes, diners leave a lot of uneaten food on their plates, but businesses are also chucking mountains of unserved food into the trash (5). It’s not that they want to throw food away, it’s that there is still a major disconnect between restaurants that are producing food waste and the nonprofits that can potentially transform that “waste” into meals for hungry people. There is a stigma surrounding prepared food donation that makes it seem like a complicated, daunting task, and in some instances, it can be. The process requires a fluid cooperation between organizations in order to transport the food safely and serve it in a timely manner. In the past, food banks have rejected donations of prepared foods simply because the number of meals available was too small to accommodate the large numbers of people they feed at one time (3).

A major part of the disconnect is the ever-present fear that a restaurant might face a huge lawsuit if any kind of illness occurred as a result of the donated food. Just because there may be rigid laws surrounding charitable donations does not mean it’s morally acceptable to take food out of the mouths of the hungry. According to the University of Arkansas School of Law, however, there is no reason why businesses need to be afraid.

In 1996, congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which waived both restaurants and nonprofits from any liability regarding the salvaged food and those who receive it as long as the donations are “apparently wholesome” and “donated in good faith” (2). The only exceptions to this law are gross negligence of the employees or a deliberate attempt to cause harm to others. Since restaurants are expected to follow strict food safety measures when preparing the food they serve to paying customers, the quality of the leftover food shouldn’t change. Though restaurateurs see donation recipients as potential plaintiffs in hefty lawsuits, Professor Nicole Civita, an activist for Sustainable Agriculture and reducing food waste insists that, “people who depend on donated food hesitate to bite the hands that feed them.” In fact, there are no known cases where a benefactor of donated food ever even attempted to sue a restaurant or a nonprofit (9).

Measures are already being taken to simplify the process of food donation. Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves more than 32 million meals per year in southern Louisiana, implemented a solution in September of 2019 that has proven to be successful over the last few months (8). They created the Meal Connect app, which allows local restaurants to quickly and easily convey to the food bank that they have left over food that needs to be picked up. “Rescue Runners” are assigned to transport the meals, and then they are served the same day (4). Local nonprofits already reaped major benefits during the first few months of this program’s existence. A homeless shelter called The New Orleans Mission was able to serve at least 3,000 meals from September to December as a result of the donations (4).

The key ingredient to the success of this program in New Orleans, and others like it across the country, is making its existence known to all prepared food retailers. We also need greater transparency regarding the laws that stop them from seeking alternatives to wasting in the first place. Televisions are constantly bombarded by commercials for personal injury attorneys highlighting the rights of those involved in automobile accidents, and It’s time that the rights of the hungry are given the same kind of attention. In addition, laws banning the excessive waste of food in restaurants would force companies to either donate to programs such as rescue runners with greater frequency or find innovative ways to put more of their raw materials to good use.  


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