Food Rescue brings together nonprofits and businesses to reduce waste and hunger

When The Grill at River Forest hosts a banquet, there are sometimes leftovers destined for the landfill.

But the restaurant at River Forest Country Club in Allegheny Township turned to donating the food to those in need. Since October, the restaurant has donated more than 300 pounds of prepared meals to the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches.

That’s “over 100 meals” that would otherwise go to waste, said Karen Snair, the association’s executive director. The association uses the donated food to feed families through its residential support services and pantry – which are experiencing their highest demand in 10 years.

Americans threw away more than $444 billion worth of food in 2021, according to ReFED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating food waste. Consumer-oriented businesses are responsible for 20% of this surplus, only 2% of which is donated.

With food insecurity on the rise and concerns about sustainability growing, “food rescue” is emerging as a way to fight waste and hunger at the same time. This includes restaurants, grocery stores and wholesalers who donate unused food to charities, who then pass it on to people in need.

It’s a simple model, but the real challenge is educating potential donors, said Brenda Russell, CEO of Fiorenza’s Food for Friends, a nonprofit that connects food sources with organizations that feed the hungry.

“They don’t know they can legally do it,” Russell said. “They think people don’t want some of these things.”

Donations are legally protected

Organizations working with food-insecure families say the demand is there, and so is the legal protection.

The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 protects people who make good faith food donations to nonprofit organizations, as well as the food banks that distribute them.

When Kyle Kubico, event coordinator for River Forest Country Club, felt like he wanted to start donating leftover food, he reached out to Fiorenza’s Food for Friends. From there, the nonprofit connected them with the Harrison-based Allegheny Valley Association of Churches and organized weekly collections.

“It’s certainly an extremely easy process,” Kubico said. “All it took was an email and that’s how we got started.”

Just a few years ago, the association of churches almost never received excess food from businesses, Snair said.

“When they started to see that they could actually repurpose the food and everything was fine, they relaxed,” Snair said.

Jen England of 412 Food Rescue agrees. As the organization’s program director for food recovery operations, she has seen a shift in attitudes about donating excess food.

“I think it’s become a much bigger part of the conversation in the country about sustainability and responsible food systems,” England said.

It’s not just small businesses.

Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, Pizza Hut and other chains work with 412 Food Rescue to transport food to nonprofits, England said. After Food Rescue’s 412 volunteers pick up the food, they transfer it directly to distribution partners. While some of these partners are traditional food pantries, the majority are housing authorities, medical clinics and similar service providers.

England said donors also benefit. For one thing, they throw away less food, reducing the amount of trash that needs to be taken out.

There are also tax incentives for businesses that donate unused food. The IRS allows qualified businesses to deduct the cost of producing donated food and half of the difference between the cost and the full fair market value. Pennsylvania businesses can also claim a credit equal to 55% of their contribution to a food rescue organization.

And, of course, there is the value of helping your fellow man for its own sake.

“I wouldn’t discount the philanthropic sentiment,” England said. “Honestly, it’s the easiest way you can make a big difference in the world in any single day.”

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