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"Take it, or we'll throw it"


First time poster. I'm an engineer here in the Bay Area. I eat out a lot and often end up at restaurants late into the evening, right about closing time. As a result, I've been the recipient of a lot of free food, accompanied by a very direct, "Take it, or we'll throw it". Although I appreciate the gesture, I've noticed that despite handing out freebies to customers, there is still a lot of good, yummy food that ends up in the trash. It makes me wonder, why don't restaurants donate more instead of throwing it?

At first, I presumed liability. However, after a quick google search, I found that in 1996 Congress passed the 'Emerson Good Samaritan Act' which eliminates donor liability, except in the case of gross negligence.

There are food banks, soup kitchens and other organizations which will come pick up the food for free. So what gives?

As this forum is full of people who passionately care about what they eat, I thought it might bother some of you, too.

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  1. I hear you and it bothers me immensely. I've heard a lot of restaurants choose to not donate also due to fear of being sued.

    I think another reason is logistics - if you donate food, you have to make sure the donor company shows up every night to receive it. What about finding a donor company who will receive the food? Who picks up these leftovers? After hours means after 10pm at the earliest and although there are many homeless, there are not many organizations who can pick up and hand out these meals.

    You know what commercial that bothered me to no end? The Jamie Oliver commercial where he toured school cafeterias and was appalled by the meal options. What got me was at some point, there was a shot of him standing right in front of at least a 6ft mountain of 'bad' food - burgers, fries, etc. To him it can be junk food, but to someone starving it's gold. The hypocrisy!

    3 Replies
    1. re: nikkib99

      Not hypocrisy. "Just" an overcomplicated food delivery system. I'm sure we can do better, but we need to park issues of profit aside briefly.

      1. re: nikkib99

        Thanks for the response. Definitely a logistical challenge. I've emailed my local Food Bank (Second Harvest) to find out more about how they coordinate their donations.

        I checked out 'Jamie Oliver school dinner' on YouTube. Yes, I get what you are saying.

        1. re: nikkib99

          Thought I'd share this article from yesterday's Washington Post re a city council effort in Montgomery County, Md, to address the issue: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/m...

          Excerpt: "Ervin was inspired to establish a food recycling program after she learned of efforts at the Food Recovery Network, a student group at the University of Maryland. Since September 2011, the group has scooped up leftovers from the university dining hall and sports games and delivered them to charitable organizations. It spends about 10 cents per meal on costs such as transportation and has donated 30,000 meals to Maryland food banks and homeless shelters

          "Food Recovery Network co-founder Ben Simon, a University of Maryland senior, is helping Ervin and other officials plan for the countywide program. He has experience in dealing with such challenges as potential donors who fear a lawsuit if their food makes someone sick. A federal law passed in 1996 protects donors from liability in such situations, he said.....

          “'There’s not a food shortage problem in our nation,” Slye said. “There’s a food distribution problem.'”

          [ETA: this was supposed to be a reply to the whole thread, not just to nikki in particular...]

        2. I know in SF this was a much touted option at one point: http://www.foodrunners.org/donate-foo...

          I'm not sure how well it actually works logistically.

          1 Reply
          1. re: goldangl95

            That is totally awesome. 200 volunteers is a lot. Wonder if it can replicated in other cities...

          2. I have been in many restaurants late in the evening and have known a number of restaurant owners...have never heard "take it or we'll throw it." What kind of restaurants are you talking about and in what part of the country? Totally new to me.

            2 Replies
            1. re: escondido123

              As a regular at several establishments I will often be offered extra dishes or food cooked in error. At the end of the night I will regularly be asked if I want the extra chips or some other item that they don't plan to hold overnight. The expectation is always that it will get tossed if not consumed. I consider this a benefit of being a regular but have never experienced a "take it or we'll throw it" situation at somewhere I am not well known.

              1. re: MonMauler

                Generally these goodies are reserved for servers and cooks. Even as a regular patron I have never been offered such food.

            2. Our local foodbank (we are not in SF) doesn't accept anyhing other than non-perishable foods in original packaging. This is due to logistics as well as concerns about food sfatey. Our local soup kitchen only serves what is prepared on site other than bread. This is so they know what goes into the food and so they can avoid overly rich/unusual ingredients which actually can be troublesome for digestive systems used to only the simplest foods.

              1. Are you talking about prepared perishable foods, the kind of thing that needs to go into the cooler that night? Are you sure there are organizations that will pick up that kind of thing, and are prepared to store it properly till use? If this sort of 'waste' really bothers you, may you can arrange to be the volunteer who does the pickup.

                1. My husband's company (a large catering company) regularly donates to the Bay Area organization you mentioned, FoodRunners. There are lots of rules and regulations in order to donate to them. It's not frivolous, though. It's about food safety. A restaurant can't just donate their leftover mashed potatoes at the end of the night. That said, FoodRunners do lots of good within health dept. regulations.

                  1. Thank you all for the comments.

                    The quote itself is from Chipotle. This is in the South Bay. I wasn’t a regular in this instance.

                    I can understand how the amount may seem small at any once place, but in aggregate, it's quite startling (at least to me). Here is an article I found that covers the issue and puts some numbers to it :


                    1. Some municipalities, counties, and states make it illegal for a restaurant to donate leftover food to soup kitchens. Total stupidity.

                      1. <I thought it might bother some of you, too>

                        I hosted a huge party at a very prolific high end hotel, years ago. The prearranged, carefully planned food tab at that time was many, many thousand. It was 2 separate parties, actually....one for the children and one for adults total of 350 people. When I awoke, in my room and came downstairs to speak with the head caterer in order to take some of the tons of leftover food that was left, (I assumed they'd also donate the rest) I was promptly told it was thrown out....
                        I still wonder, to this day, what the hell they really did with that incredible food.

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: latindancer

                          you know what they say about assumptions..............................

                          If you had asked that leftovers be packaged before the party was broken down, you would have received what you had paid for. Asking after you wake up (hours later) is unfair to the caterer.

                          At the end of a party, caterers need to clean up. Chafing dishes and holding pans must be washed. The cooked food may be offered as a meal to those employees working at the particular party. BUT the liability is too great to donate the cooked food. There is no assurance that this food was held at proper temperatures (mandated by the health codes) until it could be packed. If the caterer knows your party is ending, the heat under hot items is allowed to go out and the items are cleaned out over time. That chafing dish of Swedish meatballs may have been without heat since 9PM when they started a dessert course, but not scraped into the trash until 11PM or later. After 2 hours or longer without proper temperature it would not be prudent to donate it.

                          Years ago, there was a project in Greater New Haven called 'Rachel's Table' in which a refrigerated truck and crew picked up leftovers from caterers and restaurants to bring to soup kitchens for distribution. Well after about 10 years it had to be shut down, not for lack of funds or participation, but the assorted health districts and insurance companies rejected the huge liability for cooked food that may not have been held at temperature of worse sat uncovered for hours at a buffet. That buffet line in a restaurant may have the ugly sneeze guards required by law, but the buffet line during the cocktail hour at a $50k wedding would have no sneeze guards.,

                          When I was in catering business, we used to make a suggestion that patrons order one less item (or course) and donate the saved cost to the CT Food Bank. No guests missed the items, less went in the garbage, and those in need benefited from this generousity.

                          1. re: bagelman01

                            I don't think you or I missed a thing.......assumptions or .......

                            1. re: bagelman01

                              I've worked with several caterers over the many years. Back then I was young and naive and placed all the responsibility on 2 party planners and the staff that knew my family and friends were staying in the Presidential Suite of a very high profile hotel. They fed and waited on us well into the morning and I still look back and wonder how I ended up with no food. It didn't bother me then and it doesn't bother me now....I just felt bad for all the homeless people out there who would have felt they'd died and gone to heaven with the tenderloins, chilled prawns, grilled salmon and every other thing I could think up that would make my wonderful guests feel welcome. I could have had one of many people I worked with pick up the leftovers (no Swedish meatballs allowed at this event) and handed it all out through the tailgate. It would have never needed to go to a shelter. Caterers are a strange lot, I've found. Other than one I've worked with several times, and owns several restaurants in my area, I've always felt the need to instruct and make sure they know my wishes, my standards and my expectations....all of which are high. I hired a caterer once for a party at my home who, with all the leftovers, promptly packaged it all up and took it home to his family. I found this out a few hours after the party ended when a staff member asked me what'd happened to all the food. My home and he didn't ask what to do with the leftovers, there was my staff everywhere...it was beyond presumptuous and a bit short of theft.
                              Regarding buffet lines....if/when I am compelled to have one I insist on hiring extra staff to watch and observe.

                              1. re: latindancer

                                "I hired a caterer once for a party at my home who, with all the leftovers, promptly packaged it all up and took it home to his family."
                                Close friends of ours had a sort of similar incident. The caterer has been in business for 30+ years and owns a restaurants/event space, this was not his first gig.

                                The party menu included whole tenderloins, steamed lobsters, shrimp cocktail, etc for 100 people. This was part of a weekend event and the host clearly specified that all leftovers were to be packaged and placed in his (the host's) coolers. He even bought containers for the food.

                                The host provided the alcohol and the bartender.

                                As the night wore on, the crowd thinned and us stragglers started to get hungry.

                                The host went to the caterering area (it was at the host's home, outside in a huge tent) and inquired about the location of the leftovers. The caterer said there weren't any leftovers. An employee accidentially proved him a liar when she (thinking she was being helpful) carried out a container of tenderloins from the company's van.

                                The host had a stand-off with the caterer about turning over the leftovers, the caterer claimed ownership as did the host. It ended with several guests (including my husband) marching past the stunned crew to remove the leftovers from the truck, where they also discovered several cases of the host's leftover booze and champagne. (I carried a case of champagne, the troups were thirsty, which contributed to the brazen food wrangling.)

                                Later when we gathered again, no one could figure out just what the caterer was thinking, taking not only the leftover food but also booze that wasn't even part of his services. Our only conclusion was he was taking it back to the restaurant.

                                I encountered him several times after this event (he was a client at my place of employment) and he acted as if nothing happened.

                                1. re: cleobeach

                                  The moment the host's liqour was discovered in the vehicles the police should have been called and the thieves prosecuted.

                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                    You would have to know the host, he took far more pleasure in taking care of it himself, with the aid of his friends.

                              2. re: bagelman01

                                I used to work for a meals on wheels program in Florida, and we'd gladly take any shelf-stable food donations we could get. We could easily get large amounts of day-old baked goods from our donors like Publix, Panera Bread, and Fresh Market. But our donors wouldn't think of donating meats or cheeses because they had no way to make sure the chain of custody for the food ensured that the meats would be held at safe temperatures between donation point and consumption, and they didn't want the bad will of their meats making people sick because of improper actions by one of the organizations they donated to.

                              3. re: latindancer

                                Some assumptions on my part.
                                If this was an orchestrated buffet,the caterer or hotel had to toss it.They don't want this back in their walk in at all,much less overnight.Even with rapid turnover,fresh items you have the serving utensil issue.The fork that started with the cheese board may have passed through several plates,meat,fruit,shellfish etc before returning to the kitchen.It's even worse with large serving spoons,I often see guests put them into another dish,sort of natural,relaxed behavior.
                                Now you have cross contamination,temperatures with safety questions (legal).I'll add,double dipping,not unheard of,another unseen risk.
                                No good operation wants this in what is supposed to be a CLEAN walk in.

                                If all was table service,maybe things can be handled differently.A long shot at the size you are describing.Clean,managed refrigeration is sort of paramount.

                                1. re: lcool

                                  I agree with everything you're saying. No question. However, as I've posted in a recent post, I'd hired extra hotel staff to watch and observe all the buffet tables to make sure things like you're describing didn't take place.

                                  It was the large cakes/desserts/6 inch cookies for the kids....large bowls of jellybeans etc. that didn't make sense to me. All thrown away. The cookies, as a matter of fact, were given to guests as they were leaving the hotel wrapped in cellophane and given with a carton of milk to kids in the guests' family. They could have easily been given to the guy on the street corner, asking for handouts, to be shared with his friends.

                                  1. re: lcool

                                    Table service and buffet, both, in 2 separate large ballrooms. It was a very well planned party.

                                2. In New York City. a group called City Harvest does collect from restaurants and in fact, some pretty heavy hitters do donate their food. Here is the link, it's pretty full of all the information you have asked about.


                                  1. I've never had a problem with throwing away food. We do not have a shortage of food in the U.S., in fact we have too much food. Some people suffer from a shortage of funds to pay for food, but then they are also short the funds to pay for clothing and shelter and all the other things that humans need.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: redfish62

                                      Thank you for that answer redfish62. The sad thing is that there is enough food to feed the whole world if folks could get along enough and be willing to supply enough money to allow it to be grown, harvested and distributed where necessary.

                                    2. I recently retired and the celebration was held at a local pub with pizzas and appetizers for about 60 people. Towards the end of the evening there was still a lot of food left. I was quite surprised when the wait staff brought out a number of take out containers and invited guests to help themselves. Everyone was happy and there was no waste.

                                      1. After contributing to this long thread....

                                        I've thought about your post and now think to myself...
                                        If I visited a restaurant like you're describing, the staff offered me the food and said 'take it or we'll throw it' I know I'd speak with the manager and arrange to have it taken to my car and I'd distribute it to the homeless, myself along with a like-minded person I know. The Bay Area has a large homeless population. The food does not need to be taken to a food shelter where laws and rules about safe food issues apply. Work something out.

                                        7 Replies
                                        1. re: latindancer

                                          I travel alone for work all the time, and always take my leftovers to go. When someone on the street asks me for money, I always say, 'No cash, but I have some delicious leftover XX'. Rarely do I get turned down for my leftovers. And if no one asks me for money, I put my to go box on top of the trash can. It's always picked up within minutes (I know it is, I watch!!). Latindancer, you are correct, direct distribution is the best option.

                                          1. re: jeanmarieok

                                            Thank you. Yes, it is.

                                            There are food banks across the country that are closing due to lack of food to put on the shelves, in the refrigerator, etc.
                                            The recession has collapsed the, at one time, generosity from private donors, etc. The shelter I give to with clothing and financial aid, in the last couple of years, has seen a dramatic drop in donations. There was a time when anyone/anytime could bring food to these shelters and it was never turned away. There were people who gladly took it and dispersed it without any thought of anything other than the goodwill of strangers. Things have changed and ironically things have turned for the worst. People who actually need the food are turned away for lack of anything to give them.
                                            I find it incredibly sad that a restaurant is giving patrons the option of 'taking it or it will be thrown away'...the bureaucracy that prevails prevents those who need it to go without. The automatic knee-jerk reaction that the recipients of the food will be poisoned is ludicrous.

                                          2. re: latindancer

                                            While I appreciate your intent, do you honestly believe that just anyone should be allowed to hand out food (no matter how well intentioned) where laws and rules about safe food issues DON'T apply?? While I'm sure (or at least hope) that your post is meant to convey the attitude of "I'm going to give out free food to hungry people and if they happen to get food poisoning or worse, oh well, I'm not constrained by laws or health codes".

                                            1. re: PotatoHouse

                                              My attitude is this...

                                              There are thousands of homeless that are hungry. Lots of them don't make it to shelters for one reason or another....one of the reasons is mental illness. They are tragically hungry and ill. i am a very huge supporter, financially, of this population. For those who know me, and support my efforts and actually applause my efforts, they know my food is immaculate and healthy and hearty. For those who don't give because of safety and healthy regulations and opt for throwing it out? I don't roll that way and I choose otherwise knowing the food I give is carefully given.

                                              1. re: PotatoHouse

                                                People do that all the time. It's called dinner parties ;)

                                                I don't think anyone who is making the effort to feed the hungry has that attitude about giving them food poisoning. This situation describes giving away food the people doing the delivering would be willing to eat themselves, if not for people who really need it.

                                              2. re: latindancer

                                                Ehh, I used to do this (distribute unsold expiring-that-day to the homeless near me), but it often resulted in a ton of littering (both containers and uneaten food) in the neighborhood.

                                                1. re: latindancer

                                                  latin and jeanmarie - Ha! yeah when I lived in SF I'd always take the left-overs, if they made it home - great, there's lunch tomorrow, but if asked for change along the way, it was gratifying to find that hungry homeless folks like the same stuff I do. Larb Gai? Sure! menudo? oh yeah!

                                                  or if it was a long walk I would leave the container somewhere obvious and clean.

                                                2. How late is late?

                                                  If it's too late, there's probably nobody from the food bank that can to pick up the food.

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: dave_c

                                                    It's more of a soup kitchen situation rather than a food bank situation. I know in some towns that it is allowed, there is actually a soup kitchen employee or volunteer that goes around to participating restaurants at closing time to pick up the donated food.

                                                    1. re: dave_c

                                                      I worked a casual reception in DC a few years ago that had a ton (platters) of petit-fours and finger sandwiches left over afterwards (7-ish on a Sunday) we called all over town and could not find one shelter that even had staff to deal with it much less collect it. we finally called 311 and had cops come take it back to the precinct station house and the firehouse for the crew(s).

                                                      1. re: hill food

                                                        I once was in charge of an afternoon event and there were trays of sandwiches left in the frig after everyone had left. So I walked over to a local park and passed them out to the people there--some of whom were homeless. Everyone was polite and in 20 minutes they were all gone.

                                                        1. re: escondido123

                                                          nicely done - if it had been a different part of town with a more concentrated homeless population and not raining we might have done that.

                                                    2. Hi, Everyone. We've taken out of sight a number of off topic posts concerning the release of psychiatric patients from hospitals. Please return to the topic at hand. Thanks very much!

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. I lived and worked in restaurants in the Bay Area for nearly a decade and I noticed that many customers would give their doggy-bags to the homeless they passed on their way home. As far as the restaurants go, it's an owner/management decision. I've worked for a few places that not only threw out tons of food, but didn't recycle--and when some of the staff brought this up with management, we got a lot of attitude and nothing was changed. And we rarely if ever gave out freebies to customers at the end of the night.

                                                        Still, I've noticed that restaurants always seem to get put through the ringer on issues like this. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the developed world. The amount of paper wasted in offices (still, even with computers) is as bothersome to me as the waste of food. Far more grain rots in silos and grain elevators and harvested produce goes bad waiting for an agreeable swing in the stock market than is thrown out at the end of the night in most restaurants. What about all the grocery stores that throw "expired" food out rather than offer the food at half price?

                                                        1. Interesting topic that got me thinking back to when my wife and I owned a small wine shop and tasting bar. When we began offering a VERY limited food selection one of the things we brought in was fresh bread. We would serve it with tastings (as a palate cleanser), make panini, and also sell whole loaves. Most of the time we'd have several loaves left over on the second day, so we'd take some home and make croutons. But what about the rest of the leftover loaves? I remember calling several food banks and churches in the area but all of them said that what we had was too small a quantity for them to pick up, even on a random basis.

                                                          After reading through this topic I am disappointed in myself for not taking more time to find out if there was somewhere that WE could have taken them, though none of the places we spoke with even suggested that.