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Can Restaurants Donate Leftover Food?

Austin Chegini
10 Feb 2021

Each year, 40 million tons of food is wasted in the United States - that’s over 25% of the total US food supply. With so many people going hungry across the country, it is often wondered if restaurants can help give away unused food. After all, estimates indicate that the food industry spends $162 billion every year in costs related to wasted food.

So, can restaurants donate leftover food? 

Simply put, yes - restaurants can donate unused food. However, businesses must adhere to a few guidelines to ensure safety. 

Why aren’t restaurants donating more food?

Business owners need to worry about liability from all angles - slip and fall, working conditions, and food safety. With so many ongoing concerns, why would a business owner want to add another potential problem to their list of worries?

That being said, Nicole Civita, a professor and director of the Food Recovery Project with the University of Arkansas School of Law states there is no available public record of anyone in the United States being sued ― or having to pay damages ― because of harms related to donated food. 

In fact, restaurants have legal protection when it comes to donating food. Businesses benefit from the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. As long as the donor does not act with negligence or intentional misconduct, the restaurant is not liable for damage incurred as the result of illness. 

What to consider when donating food

Some business owners are surprised when an organization rejects their donations. This may discourage restaurateurs from donating again in the future, but it is for good reason.

Restaurants can donate leftovers, but they have to abide by regulations and organizational policies. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture has specific guidelines for donating food. Likewise, organizations like Feeding America require food banks in their networks to follow set guidelines.

Aside from these regulations, review each of these items to ensure organization accept your donations.

Only donate unused stock

Once food is served, it can no longer be given to most charitable organizations. This is a common issue for restaurants who prepare food in bulk, such as buffets and family-style establishments. You may have enough food to feed 100 people, but food safety standard prohibits you from sharing anything that has been previously served.

For instance, If you prepare 10 dishes of spaghetti and place them all in a buffet, all leftovers will go to waste. However, if you only set up 5 dishes and leave the other 5 in storage, you should be able to donate the remaining dishes as long as you follow food safety guidelines and work with a charity that accepts prepared meals.

Check expiration dates

If your restaurant has unused inventory, donating these goods can help free up shelf space, help your community, and earn you a few tax deductions. 

However, make sure your supplies are not expired before donating. Otherwise, you will waste time collecting and donating these items, and they will take up space at food pantries until workers realize the goods cannot be used. 

Tip: With the right inventory management system, you can minimize shrinkage and avoid having to donate items like these.

Develop a relationship with local food banks

Organizations need donations, but they have policies and processes to follow. You usually cannot call up unannounced and expect to offload heaps of leftover food. 

Make sure to contact several charitable organizations in your area to see what they need and how they accept donations. Some places may only want non-perishable items, while others may take produce and other goods. 

To start, you can use Feeding America’s search tool to find food banks near you.

Other ways to donate with fewer restrictions

Depending on where you’re located and what meals you prepare, traditional food donation may not work for your restaurant. Luckily, you can still give back to your community with the following ideas.

Give free meals to those in need

Some people are hesitant to visit food banks and other organizations. Maybe they feel embarrassed to seek out help or live too far away from donation centers.

You can help these people by offering free meals directly from your restaurant. All someone has to do is ask for your charity meal, and you will give it with no questions asked.

Many restaurants that offer these meals typically serve simple foods that are filling but inexpensive. Common charity offerings include pasta, soups and bread, sandwiches, and other simple dishes.

While this approach relies on an honor system, it is an effective way to offload inventory and do some good in your neighborhood. 

Cater to community events

If you prepared food but it never left storage, catering is a perfect way to empty your shelves and give back. A community group, such as a school board or scouting organization, would most likely be delighted to accept your leftovers at their events. 

Likewise, you can cater community block parties, fundraisers, and other happenings. Not only would people appreciate your generosity, but you can also promote your restaurant while serving others.

Allow social groups to use your restaurant for meetings

If you have a buffet or prepare large amounts of food, transporting these dishes can be nearly impossible. Food will become cold and unsafe to eat, so it will go to waste quickly. 

By allowing community groups to hold meetings at your restaurant, you give them a place to go and can prevent leftovers from being tossed out. As long as you follow normal standards for serving food in your restaurant, any remaining dishes should be fine for consumption.

Give excess food to farms

Sometimes, there will be no safe way to donate food. Before tossing out items, call up local farmers to see if they want anything. While there are still restrictions on what animals can eat, they are generally more lenient than donations for human consumption. 

Read over this guide by the Food and Drug Administration to see how to donate food scraps for animals legally.

Reduce surplus food with the right point of sale system

While donating to charitable causes is always beneficial, restaurants still contribute to America’s food waste problems. From table scraps to expired items, there are many food products that cannot go anywhere else but the landfill. 

With the Epos Now Restaurant Point of Sale, you can get better oversight of your inventory to prevent ordering too many supplies. With our system, you can track all supplies, ingredients, and even liquids in real-time. And with automated purchase orders, your POS will replenish your stock when items run low. 

Speak with a consultant today to learn more about Epos Now.