[GREEN(ER) EVENTS 101] Food for Thought: Consider Donating Leftover Event Meals as Part of Your “Green” Efforts

December 2, 2016

By Bill Clevlen

In the United States, hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food.  Rather, a prevalence of poverty and an incredible amount of food waste keep millions of Americans from eating proper meals each day.

Meeting planners and event venues actually can help improve this scenario by making arrangements to donate leftover event food that would otherwise end up in the trash, where it benefits no one.

Nancy Zavada CMP, a founder of Portland, Ore.-based event management firm MeetGreen, says the subject of food donation comes up at nearly every webinar, conference and training session she presents. “Rumor has it that it is illegal to donate leftover event food,” she says. “This rumor persists despite the facts.”

What can be done?

We’ve all stood in buffet lines in banquet halls, filled our plates to the top and then walked away afterward with something left over… only for perfectly good food to be scraped into the trash can.  As Americans, we are generally fortunate to have an abundance of available food, but not every American enjoys the benefits of it.

Event organizers, mindful of not running out of food for guests, tend to order more than needed just to be on the safe side.  That means that, at the end of an event, perfectly good meals go straight into a dumpster. Let’s try to reverse that trend, and ensure that more of that “would-be waste” can be turned into nutritious meals for needy persons.

The statistics on food waste in our nation are truly incredible. Thirty to 40 percent of the food grown, processed and shipped in the United States this year will go to waste.  That number is even more incredible when you stop to think that more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, and even more have little access to regular, nutritious meals, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

So the question is, how can meeting planners and venues save perfectly good food from the trash heap and put it in the hands of people who truly need it?

In 1996, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton. The act was established to protect those who donate “apparently wholesome food” in good faith. It accomplishes this by removing donor liability, except in cases of gross negligence.

As with most laws, there always seems to be some ambiguity; some argue the wording of this particular act doesn’t offer enough protection to donors.  Others have found it to be perfectly adequate, and have developed foolproof methods for safely donating excess food from events to local food pantries or homeless shelters.

Who’s doing it?

Gary Wilk is acquisition manager for Kansas City-based Harvesters, a food bank that works with hotels and convention venues to reduce waste and provide nutritious food to people who need it. “It is so easy to help reduce food waste with just a bit of planning and coordination,” he says.

According to Wilk, in a typical situation after an event, leftover food is picked up by his organization’s “food rescue team.”  The venue’s chef is asked to put the prepared food in aluminum pans with lids, then freeze them. If there are items such as milk or pastries that cannot be frozen, these can be refrigerated.

Once the food rescue team arrives, items are placed in a refrigerated or freezer-equipped truck and taken directly to a food kitchen so they can be served quickly.

“Obviously, there are rules that have to be followed to ensure a safe transition,” Wilk says. “For example, if there is a buffet, we can’t accept anything that’s already been put out to serve. We only take food that’s never left the kitchen.”

For some event planners and venues, transportation distance becomes an issue.  Unfortunately, not every area has a food rescue organization that can deliver items in expensive refrigerated vehicles.  In these cases, you may be able to seek out a nearby food kitchen, and try to arrange food pick-ups or drop-offs. That’s how the staff at the America’s Center convention complex in St. Louis handles food donations.

Extra costs involved with labor typically factor into venues’ decisions to donate.  Finding local food donation organizations close to your meeting site makes the effort much more practical and cost effective.

Other Tips and Facts

The staff at America’s Center stresses that extra non-meal items from events can be donated, too.  Staffers from a recent St. Louis convention donated leftover goodie bag items to local homeless shelters, for example.  Convention center employees visited all the booths at the end of the event, and asked if the organizations would contribute leftover items they’d otherwise have to ship back.  In each case, the answer was “yes.”

Researching this story brought to light that many venue staffs and organizers are still in the dark about current laws, and don’t donate simply because of unfounded liability fears. They’re afraid of being held responsible if someone eats donated food and becomes ill or suffers an allergic reaction, for example. Although the Emerson Act has been on the books since 1996, some planners were surprised to hear that it does protect organizations donating food in good faith.

Other groups are decidedly ahead of the curve in embracing food donation. For example, a California nonprofit, Waste No Food, has developed a mobile app that helps meeting planners in that state find food charity groups close to the venues they use.  All charities are vetted before they are added to the organization’s database.  A New York City-based organization, Transfernation, also has an app that operates “like an Uber for food rescue,” its website states.  Event planners notify Transfernation volunteers that they have food to be picked up, and the items are delivered quickly to residents in need.

With so many people going hungry in a country where we have more than enough, now is a good time for venues and planners to re-evaluate – or establish – their own food donation programs and policies. If more companies and facilities pick up on this effort, it will mean less food in trash receptacles, and more on the plates of neighbors in need.

Want to learn more about this important subject?  Visit the websites of the organizations mentioned in this story.

If it becomes clear that your company or organization can’t make a food donation program work, there are ways to compost leftover organic materials so they can be used to improve soil. This includes fruits, vegetables, seeds, produce skins and hulls, and other natural items. For more information on this topic, visit the National Restaurant Association’s website, www.restaurant.org, and search for “composting.”

Bill Clevlen is a St. Louis freelance writer and host of the nationally syndicated radio travel show Bill on the Road (www.billontheroad.com).

Food Facts

  • Between 30 and 40 percent of our food supply is wasted – more than 20 pounds of food per person per month. (United Nations Environment Program)
  • More food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single municipal solid waste material. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
  • 49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table.  (Feeding America)

About the author

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