Food industry grapples with leftovers
May 26, 2007
Food surrounds us.
On each corner seems to be a gas station or convenience store filled with frozen burritos, pizza pockets, protein and candy bars. Numerous grocery stores and restaurants constantly re-stock their shelves with, what appears to be, enough food to feed small countries.
With all this grub to go around, however, people are still in need and suffer from hunger. According to Mary Reese of the Christian Center of Park City, roughly 200 families come into her organization every week looking for free food to fill their bellies.
"From Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., we are open for anybody who needs food. We get about 30 to 40 people a day. It varies," Reese said.
Much of the food donated to the Christian Center comes from grocery stores, Reese said.
"We pick up bread from Smith’s and Albertsons, and we pick up produce once a week from Wild Oats. Once a week, we go to Dan’s (The Market at Park City)," Reese said.
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However, because of health code laws, a lot of the leftover food can’t be donated.
"Food shouldn’t be wasted when there’s hungry people in the world," said Destiny Grose, a cashier of The Market at Park City who also works with homeless shelters in Salt Lake.
Grose has been a cashier for 16 years, most of that time working at Albertsons. She said eight or 10 years ago, the health codes were not as strict and they were able to donate more food. But now it’s a different story, especially for larger chain stores that could be threatened with lawsuits if someone claims to get sick from donated food.
"The businesses aren’t protected," Reese said. "They are hampered by corporations. The bigger you get, the more hampered you are."
Such is the frustration that restaurant and grocery store owners face. Codes and fear of lawsuits often force them to throw away remaining food.
"We hate throwing things away," said Eileen Eunn, the president of the Park City Restaurant Association who also owns Done To Your Taste catering. "I know every restaurant would give their (leftover) food, and we’ve all tried. We’ve called before but we were told no. Legally, you are not allowed to give any leftovers to anyone by the health department."
In response, Eunn said most restaurants in town give to local non-profits and charities.
"They donate so much food to community," Eunn said. "They are constantly giving to community; they just can’t do it in that way."
Many of the restaurants, according to Jeff Jones, the director of planning for Bill White Enterprises Restaurant Group, plan well and do not have a lot of excess food.
"Most of the leftovers are used, At times, during the busy season, we are going through food so quickly, we just make it and sell it to our guests," Jones said.
During the slower times, though, there are some leftovers that the employees eat.
"But we do not give that food away for health reasons," Jones said. "Years ago you could do it."
Grose said Bill White’s company, however, does provide a lot of food for fundraisers and other charities.
The catering business is different than a grocery store or a restaurant. A caterer will serve the food usually buffet style and prepare five to 10 percent more than what is ordered just make sure everyone is happy, Eunn explained. After the event is over, the food is considered used by the health department, she said, and they have to throw it away.
"Because it’s been out for a certain time, when it leaves my hands, I don’t know what someone did with it or if someone doesn’t wash their hands," Eunn said.
Eunn said the leftovers belong to the catering company and they can’t even let the clients take them home.
"We can’t even leave leftovers at the event," Eunn said. "It’s an unfortunate situation, but I understand the health department and the basis behind it."
She would like to have the opportunity to give that food away, but she is torn between safety and giving away the extra food.
"It’s horrible," Eunn said about throwing away food. "But, you just don’t know what other people are doing with it. It seems a shame and it doesn’t seem right. But, at the same time, it does seem right because you don’t know what other people are doing."
Grocery stores have more items that are packaged and sealed, which allows them give more food away.
Still, grocery stores are limited and most of what they can give are bakery items.
"A lot of it depends on the condition of the food, if it is out of code it is discarded. We donate to the food bank those items that are still not harmful but edible," said Doug Dastrup, the store director.
Dastrup said people from the Christian Center or the Food Bank come in daily and pick up anything from $50 to $100 worth of food.
The Market at Park City is a locally owned store, Grose said, that doesn’t have the same legal restraints that a larger grocery store might.
"Dan’s is a great store, they really make a concerted effort to save stuff," Grose said. "They keep it refrigerated and they give to a number of local charities. At Albertsons, it was a problem because the corporate culture, they were afraid of the risk."
Grose said the staff at The Market at Park City pulls stuff off the shelves a few days prior to the expiration date and give those items to a charity.
"There is a vast amount of food," Grose said. "I just know, we want to have full shelves and we want you to be able to come in at 9 p.m. and have a lot of food to choose from, but we want fresh food as long as possible."
The Market at Park City also worked out a deal to give sliced meat, bread and bananas to various groups to provide fresh lunches, Grose said. The Market saves old bread, crackers, bruised fruit, cheese and yogurt for the Christian Center or the Food Bank.
"If the apples aren’t that good, perhaps the consumer might not want them, but they might be fine and great for someone in need," Grose said.
Most of the items in the grocery store are safe to eat well past the printed expiration date and the employees throw those items in the freezer until the Food Bank comes.
"We save a lot of them as store brand and send to food banks," Grose said. "There are markets out there where they buy bulk stuff and sell it to the public. Yogurt would probably be good at least a week after the fact. Cheese is good for a long time."
Food stamps, Grose said, help people purchase food, but it doesn’t help them get toilet paper, toothpaste and other needs.
"They need stuff that people probably don’t normally think about," Grose said. "Stuff for babies are needed and personal care things. They need for feminine hygine. I’m a pet lover, and a lot of these people have pets and can’t afford dog food. These dogs protect their belongings and I see them and I hope they are getting enough food and not just a hamburger they find in the trash."
Grose, along with others in the food industry, hope they can utilize more of the food, however, for those in need.
The current health codes and fear of being sued "shouldn’t stop all the potential good that can be done with all the extra food," Grose said.