Restaurants struggle with food donation laws


Editor’s note: This story is paired with “Some Americans go hungry, while others waste food”

Hruska’s Kolaches in Provo hardly ever deals with unsold food at the popular bakery, but co-owner and manager Devin Emery would love to help the community by donating any leftovers.

The problem is, when Emery first opened her business over three years ago, food code laws stated the type of leftover food Hruska’s Kolaches has cannot be taken by food shelters.

“Because of food code laws, our product isn’t something a shelter can take,” Emery said. “In other words, since we already have an ‘already made’ product, they won’t accept it.”

The government has not clarified any changes or regulations to Emery since then.

An estimated 30-40 percent of all food in the U.S. is wasted, so it may be surprising that one in eight Americans still find it challenging to put a meal on the table every day. While food waste comes from many different sources, a substantial amount can be attributed to restaurants, who on average only donate 1.4 percent of their unused food.

However, according to Sarah Bateman, Natural Resources Stewardship Committee Chair, City of Orem, the underlying problem of food waste from restaurants is not that no one wants to donate. It is the confusion around the donation process.

Food waste is a huge problem in the United States. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Anne Taylor)

“If produce is whole or uncut, you can easily and legally donate it to food banks and shelters,” Bateman said. “Once you cut into it or prepare it in any way, the rules change. Different countries, states, and counties might take slightly different approaches to food safety, preparation and waste.”

Many restaurants are concerned about liabilities they may face when donating food. Emery said she is unaware if the rules have changed since she first checked. She also said anything that does go unsold is sent home with employees so nothing is thrown away.

One correlation between restaurants and food donations is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 (BEGSA). To encourage more businesses to donate leftover food, this act protects those donating from civil or criminal liability except in the case of “gross negligence or intentional misconduct.”

The act covers not only whole foods but prepared foods as well. Austin Green, manager of J. Dawgs in Provo, said his restaurant donates all leftover food to the local Food & Care Coalition. Green said he was fully aware of the act.

BEGSA has been around for over 20 years, but many restaurants are unaware of it and the protection is gives them. Emery said she was unaware of the act.

Although BEGSA is a federal act, regulations about food donations still differ from state to state. While ultimately the BEGSA would overrule a charge given to someone donating food, the case would need to be taken to the federal level and may cost more time and money than wanted or even possible.

However, when donating any whole or packaged foods that can be safely kept at room temperature, restaurants should have no reason to worry about liability except in cases of extreme negligence.

The line between whole food and prepared food is where things become more complex. The National Restaurant Association’s food donation guide states “the key to safe donation of prepared food is the proper management of the food’s temperature, handling and storage times.”

This means meals served warm must stay warm and cold foods such as produce must stay cold from the time they are prepared to the time they are served at the donation facility, including during transportation.

If restaurants are diligent about this process, they should have no issue donating food even under Utah regulations.

It is not only restaurants that fear liabilities, but the receivers of donations as well. Heidi Cannella, communications manager at Utah Food Bank, said they are unable to receive prepared food as donations because of liability and distribution logistics concerns. However, Utah Food Bank has created Grocery Rescue, a program to help businesses donate leftover whole foods before they go bad.

According to Cannella, refrigerated trucks owned and operated by Utah Food Bank travel to businesses all over the state six days a week to pick up food that would otherwise be thrown away. Those donations are then distributed within 24 hours to citizens who need them most.

“Last year, this program’s partnerships with 225 retailers across the state provided just under 14 million pounds of food for Utahns facing hunger,” Cannella said.

Programs like Grocery Rescue are one way to address the problem of food waste. For restaurants and small businesses who are unable to create such a program, donations of prepared food is still an option. It just takes some planning and thought.

“It’s tricky,” Sarah Bateman said, “but not impossible.”

All businesses should check with their local government to see exactly what rules and regulations apply to their particular situation.

[vc_gallery interval=”5″ images=”546989,546993,546992,546991,546995,546994″ img_size=”636X464″ title=”Food donations given to Utah Food Bank and Food & Care (photos courtesy of Heidi Cannella and Brent Crane)”]
Food shelters and banks heavily rely on donations from local businesses. Canella said Utah Food Bank’s Grocery Rescue program accounts for 36% of all the food they collect. This allows them to use financial donations for purposes other than buying food, like truck costs and other business expenses. She said partly because of this donated food, Utah Food Bank is able to provide $7.81 worth of goods and services for each $1 donated.

Although Utah Food Bank is unable to accept leftover prepared food, Canella said there are many other establishments that restaurants should look into if they want to donate, such as smaller food banks and shelters.

“Typically, a soup kitchen or shelter that primarily serves the homeless population would be most likely to accept such donations,” Canella said.

Brent Crane, president and CEO of Food & Care Coalition, is very grateful for donations from local businesses around Utah county.

“We have too many businesses to count that donate on a regular basis,” Crane said. “We probably have over 800 unique donors who donate food in various forms — prepared, canned, fresh, etc.”

Food & Care provides over 100,000 meals annually while spending under $10,000 annually on prepared foods. Crane said this would not be possible without donations from these businesses. Crane said he has not seen any major problems arise from businesses trying to donate food, prepared or otherwise. He said they are protected under BEGSA and also receive tax-deduction benefits from donating.

Canella said the best thing for restaurants and businesses interested in donating leftover food to do is stay informed.

“We recommend contacting a partner agency near your location to find out if they are able to accept the food, and what their processes are,” she said. “It can all go a long way in helping us fight hunger statewide.”

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