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Donating food to the hungry should be easy — why isn’t it?

The United States is poised on the cusp of a revolution in fighting food waste and hunger, if we can just cut through the red tape.

One in six Americans is food insecure (lacks access to food on a regular basis), according to the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, Feeding America, and 15.9 million of the food insecure are children. We could feed every one of them if the restaurant and food service industry captured just one-third of the perfectly good food it wastes each year, estimated Feeding America.

Last fall, food-waste activists pulled off the inaugural Feeding the 5,000 in America event, in Oakland, Calif. Volunteers prepared a free, nutritious meal — fruit-and-greens smoothies; sweet potato, caramelized onion, carrot soup, rolls and sliced bread — for 5,000 people entirely from five-plus tons of produce and bread that otherwise would have been thrown away.

The goal was to show just how much still-edible food goes to waste in our country and to gather a coalition of organizations and businesses to set a political agenda for the issue of food waste (which contributes mightily to greenhouse gas emissions). This event, along with the sold-out Zero Food Waste Forum in Berkeley a few days earlier, brought together the who’s who list of the food-waste world (yes, there is one) to develop a roadmap for making 2015 the year that fighting food waste goes mainstream.

The national food-service company I work for as waste specialist was one of the few businesses in attendance at both. Our experience in food recovery, the donation of prepared excess food to people in need in various states, has shown me what the biggest challenge is. If we want food recovery to become as commonplace for restaurants and food service providers as recycling and composting have become, then we need policymakers to address the bureaucratic tangle around what can be donated and how.

It’s not a legal problem. Although many businesses believe they can’t donate prepared food for liability reasons, that’s simply not the case. Since 1996, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act has protected donors from liability, and extensive research outlines exactly what’s covered by the law. (Let me tell you, it is a lot.)

So why does this myth prevail? Even for companies (such as mine) that have worked for years to reduce food waste and are aware of the protections afforded by the Good Samaritan Act, some serious barriers to donation need to be addressed if we are to grow this national movement. Specifically, we need shared national standards around what food recovery entails and how to donate prepared food safely.

Cases in point: In Ohio, our donation program at Oberlin College took months to get off the ground because the local health department told us we needed to get “special licensing” to transport recovered food off site. In Carleton, Minn., local health inspectors told our staff at Carleton College that we couldn’t donate any food, period — even though Minnesota has a well-known food recovery initiative.

Meanwhile, another food-service provider in Pennsylvania received a “cease and desist” letter from the state’s department of agriculture, saying its program was in violation of the state code because it was donating food through a third party. Every time we start a donation program in a new place, we have to check carefully whether we can donate food items that have been put out for self-serve, because each state seems to take a different stance.

Luckily, some national standards do exist, the most widely used being the Comprehensive Guidelines for Food Recovery Programs (PDF) developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000 (most recently updated in 2006).

Yet on the ground, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the USDA and FDA’s guidelines and those of the state government agencies in charge of actually overseeing the food donation programs. In one state, you might find a department of health that is quite familiar with food recovery, while one in the next state over hasn’t even heard the term. Furthermore, even if government agencies are familiar with the comprehensive guidelines for food recovery programs, the guidelines are so vague (and at times contradictory) that many policies and practices enforced at the state level are left to interpretation.

However, there are success stories that demonstrate what is possible. In Seattle, thanks to an amazing partnership with the local food bank, Food Lifeline, and the Washington Department of Health, every one of our 20-plus corporate, university and museum cafés is able to easily donate its excess food to people in need. Food Lifeline’s perishable food recovery program, Seattle’s Table, was launched with support from the state's Department of Health and as a result, it operates like a well-run machine.

Seattle’s Table provides everything our chefs need to donate safely, including temperature logs, containers and food-safe donation bags. They equip the agencies handling the donations with the tools and training they need to safely collect, store and serve the food. Their guidelines and expectations around food recovery are clear, safe and reasonable. That means everyone (donors, hunger relief agencies, and the Department of Health) has a shared understanding of expectations.

We’d like to see every one of our 500-plus cafés in 32 states participating in food recovery, but having to sort out what is acceptable in each geographical place is challenging and time-consuming. There should be shared standards that state government agencies are familiar with and that are communicated to the local health departments and health inspectors.

Businesses can play an important role in addressing hunger through food recovery, but few have the time and resources to navigate each state and local maze. As long as there are still food-insecure families in our communities, throwing meals away is like taking food out of a hungry child’s mouth.

So, I am issuing a call to all policy activists and lawmakers to help businesses such as ours out: How can we get the 50 states' departments of health and agriculture to agree on universal best practices and protocols around food recovery?

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