Paula J. Owen, Worcester Telegram and Gazette, 01-07-2012
As the economy continues to falter and the number of families seeking help at local food pantries increases, there is one possible solution gaining momentum in the Legislature that could help feed the hungry.
It is called the restaurant food donations bill and it has the support of many local restaurant owners.
David I. Andelman, founder of the Restaurant and Business Alliance and chief executive officer of the Phantom Gourmet, said as food costs continue to go up, the bill is a win-win for restaurant owners and those in need. Restaurant owners are incredibly generous people, he said, and want to help, but fear getting sued if they donate their unused food. The bill removes the risk of liability for them, should someone get sick from food they donate, and agencies get the food they need, he said. Participating restaurants could also take a tax credit.
“The bill makes incredible common sense,” said Mr. Andelman. “It is good for everyone. It says if a restaurant wants to donate leftovers, it can’t be sued. A restaurant owner who makes $1 million a year in sales, has a wife and kids and wants to give away leftover food, won’t because he knows he could get sued and lose everything. Even if he wins the lawsuit, he loses, because he would have to pay to defend it.”
He said the first time his company organized a major event, he was shocked that all the leftover food could not be donated.
“They said, ‘No. We can’t do that,’” he said. “It is scary. You can throw it all away or do some good with it. I say, do some good with it. There is a real job crisis in America and this will help.”
Jean G. McMurray, executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank in Shrewsbury, said food donations through the federal Emergency Assistance Program have decreased this year now that economic stimulus money has run out. The Worcester County Food Bank collects and distributes food to smaller, local agencies throughout Worcester County.
Ms. McMurray said she sees potential benefits with the restaurant bill.
“We have seen a 17 percent decrease in food donations from the USDA program,” she said. “That decrease represents about 353,000 pounds of food from fiscal year 2010 to 2011. Since 2008, we’ve seen an overall increase of 12 percent in the number of people receiving food assistance.”
The majority of food stocked on the food bank’s shelves is non-perishable items, she said, such as spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables and rice, and some frozen products such as peaches and chicken.
Though she doesn’t see unused food going directly to the food bank from restaurants, she said the agencies the food bank services could accept those donations directly. Programs that offer sit-down meals, for instance, such as shelters or soup kitchens, would benefit from the bill.
“It would be a real treat for someone in a shelter to get this wonderfully prepared, delicious food from a restaurant,” she said. “That could happen more.
“And, with some of the food pantries that we distribute to, I think it could help. I think some agencies might be in a better position to handle that food that have adequate refrigeration or a kitchen facility for the food to be reheated and served. There are a lot of food safety issues around it.”
Food pantries could also benefit from restaurant donations, she said, but they are usually staffed by volunteers so the logistics of picking up the food could be an issue.
“If they had to pick up, it could be overwhelming,” she said. “If they drop it off, it would be helpful. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense for all food donations in Worcester County to come here. Sometimes it makes sense for it to be decentralized. We have a network of agencies we partner with that have tremendous people who are committed and dedicated and they are the ones on the front line making sure people have food. They try to do whatever they can in this cash-strapped economy to help and may not have the resources. It will be interesting to see what happens with this legislation.”
James R. Alkire, owner of Point Breeze Restaurant in Webster, is also on the board of directors of the Webster Dudley Foodshare. He said he is concerned about repackaging and transporting prepared food, but said the benefits would outweigh the risks when it comes to feeding hungry families.
“I’m a chef and working in the system and I see the potential for contamination between here and there,” said Mr. Alkire. “We provide 1,000 families with a box of food once a month at our program. An already-produced food item could be difficult to manage. We (restaurant owners) don’t want to get sued, but we don’t want any of our people at the foodshare to get sick, either.”
Each local food bank, he said, should decide for itself whether to accept restaurant donations.
“Our shelves are full,” he said. “If my shelves were empty in Webster, I would maybe take that risk if we were unable to fill the need of folks here. If I was in Worcester or Boston and had people hungry, I would do what I would have to, to get the people their sustenance.”
State Rep. Kevin J. Kuros, R-Uxbridge, said the bill has not received that much attention.
“With 5,500 bills going through, it is easy for one to be overlooked,” said Mr. Kuros. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of ‘PR’ to get things done that don’t cost a lot of money and can do a lot of good. My concern is if the legal protection in the bill is sufficient. We live in a litigious society — hopefully the protection is real.”
With federal funding down from the USDA, he said, the bill is one solution at the state level.
“I would like to see it move along pretty quickly,” he said. “With federal funding down, this is something that could soften the blow a little bit. A lot of restaurants would love to get involved more with local food shelters. If this reduces one of the perceived constraints of why restaurants wouldn’t want to donate, that is a good thing. Almost everyone restaurant owner I’ve met is deeply committed to the community they are in and this would give them another opportunity to continue their involvement.”
Robb B. Ahlquist, who owns the Sole Proprietor, 111 Chop House and Via Italian Table restaurants in Worcester with his wife Madeleine M. Ahlquist, said he supports the bill.
“I think anything that can take perfectly good food that would be tossed out and put that food to good use outside the restaurant environment is worth pursuing,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we do it? It would certainly take the impediment out of doing it because there is always the possibility of liability. If it removes that, and creates a clear path to get food to a pantry or central area to be redistributed, it makes a lot of sense. Now restaurants have to throw it out and absorb the cost, but this would make it so the food can feed someone and the restaurant could take a tax credit for it. It seems to be a practical, pretty smart bill.”