Restaurant Industry Insights

Donating Leftover Food and Reducing Food Waste in the Restaurant Industry

Recently, Restaurant Business posted a Q&A. A restaurant was going to be closed for two days. An employee asked the manager if they could take the prepped and perishable food they would otherwise throw away to a shelter. The manager said no due to liability concerns. 

Which makes one wonder: How many restaurants throw away food because they’re concerned about being sued for donating leftover food that’s still good? If the numbers are accurate, quite a few. 

Let’s explore the facts and how restaurants can put their food to good use. With 44 million people, including 13 million children, experiencing food insecurity in the U.S., there are better options than throwing good food away.

How Much Food Is Wasted at Restaurants?

The National Restaurant Association reports that restaurants generate up to 33 billion pounds of food waste every year. And that’s just in the U.S. The wasted food that comes from restaurants makes up 15% of the food that finds its way to landfills, according to NPR. As this food decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas.

A survey by Deliverect found that 68% of diners believe restaurants should have procedures in place to avoid waste.

How Can Restaurants Minimize Waste?

Restaurants waste food due to spoilage, lack of portion control, spillage, and refires. So, what can restaurants do to minimize this waste while helping feed those in need and reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Here are a few tips: 

  • Better Inventory Management: By keeping a keen eye on inventory levels, practicing FIFO religiously, and only ordering what’s needed, restaurants can significantly reduce food spoilage. Today’s POS systems also offer powerful tools for keeping track of inventory. Advanced technologies can track food from when it’s received to the ingredients used on orders, constantly monitoring stock levels based on sales data.
  • Reduce Portions: Unless you’re a restaurant that serves thimble-sized tasting portions, chances are much or at least some of the food you serve goes to waste. For those with an industrial scale, you can weigh your food waste bins after each shift to determine the amount. You can also spend one week with chefs, managers, kitchen staff, and servers, keeping track of the dishes that come back at the end of a meal with the most food. It’s these items that can benefit from reduced portion sizes.
  • Compost: For restaurants with space, creating a garden and compost area is a great way to reduce waste while providing plants with rich organic matter. Make sure to check with your health inspector to ensure there are no restrictions in your area. There is an art to composting, which can be found here.

Are Restaurants Liable for the Food They Donate?

Many in the restaurant industry have received misinformation regarding their liability when donating food. Even when writing this article, I found my way to Hacker News, which started with the statement, “That’s not why restaurants throw away food. They do it because of liability laws. There is super high risk of getting sued if you give away food and someone gets sick.” Fortunately, the person who wrote that was quickly corrected, with many people responding and asking that the spreading of this type of misinformation stop. 

According to the USDA, the Good Samaritan Act of 1996 provides liability protection for food donations. The restaurant must donate in good faith to a nonprofit organization that feeds those who are hungry. It does not cover direct donations to families in need. Additionally, all 50 states have food donation laws that protect donors.

In 2023, the Food Donation Improvement Act went into effect, further protecting food donors in an effort to reduce food waste and insecurity.

Several organizations have stepped up to help make it easier to donate leftover food. Waste No Food is a nonprofit that helps with the exchange of food from restaurants to those who need it. Adelante Desert Harvest Food Rescue Program fights hunger and food waste in New Mexico. It picks up food from restaurants and grocery stores and delivers it to shelters and food pantries. They rescue what accounts for about 1.5 million meals a year.

Find a Food Rescue Organization near you.


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