The other night, Deborah, my marketing director, went to dinner at a fine steak restaurant. Declining the waiter's suggestion that she order dessert, she joked that he should eat it instead so it wouldn't go to waste. "Can you believe it," he said, "whatever doesn't get used each night gets thrown away!"

Indeed, every day, restaurants, bakeries, grocers, food producers, and many other businesses trash perfectly good food, while millions of Americans go hungry. It's not decent, and it's not necessary.

There's something that all of us in small business can do about hunger -- regardless of what type of business we own.

The U.S. government estimates that about 96 billion pounds of food gets thrown away every year! Some of that is "plate waste," but a good portion is edible, wholesome food. Meanwhile, over 33 million Americans -- over 6 million children -- were "food insecure" in 2001; since then, two million more Americans have lost their jobs, so that number is likely to be considerably higher now.

"If you're a hotel catering manager, you probably prepare extra food," explained Susan Hofer, spokesperson for America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, headquartered in Chicago (Second Harvest). "If those pans of food have never been served from, they can be picked up from a food rescue organization."

"Food rescue" is a growing trend. Food gets picked up, often by volunteers, from a business that has extra food. The food is then either delivered fresh to food banks or organizations, or packaged or frozen for later use, often as individual meals.

"More than 40% of the people we serve work for a living," said Hofer. "These are families who work in relatively low wage jobs: the clerks at 7-11, nurses' aides, janitors, the maids at the hotel that serve these fabulous feasts. Many are transitioning from welfare to work. For a family juggling schedules before the night job begins, having a prepared meal can be a great thing."

As someone who thought donated food ended up only in soup kitchens, I was surprised to learn of the wide variety of those depending on food donations. Many agencies directly serve children, such as before- and after-school programs, or abused spouse and children shelters.

Helping alleviate hunger can be good for your bottom line. "It costs money to throw away food," said Hofer. "And there's the frustration of throwing away perfectly good, healthy food just because it doesn't look pretty."

You may also qualify for a tax deduction, especially if the "Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Act" is enacted. That proposed legislation would extend tax deductions to small and family businesses for donating food.

What can businesses do?

Food-related businesses:

  • arrange for extra food to be picked up
  • prepare extra food
  • offer storage space

All businesses:

  • donate your time and expertise
  • donate your products (extra office supplies and clothes are particularly needed for back-to-school kits for kids)
  • donate your older, but still good, trucks or vans when you upgrade
  • volunteer with your staff for a half-day at the food bank (good team-building activity!)
  • give money (the cost of lunch, for a day or week?)

You can also work with colleagues and others to spread the word. An example: one national trade association requires all its meetings and conferences to be held in facilities that participate in food rescue.

What about liability if someone gets sick from food you donate? "The federal Good Samaritan Act protects companies that make good faith contributions," Hofer assured me. "That doesn't mean they can give us rotten food, but if they've stored it properly, they're protected."

There are more than 200 local hunger relief organizations nationwide. Check the National Hunger Awareness Day website at Hunger to find groups in your community.

"Hunger isn't going to be solved by any one group," said Hofer. "Government can't do it alone; corporations can't do it alone; organizations can't do it alone; volunteers can't do it alone. But together, we can form a network that insures that people who are hungry have enough to eat."

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the author of
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