Leftover Laws : Legal Stew Keeps Food From Needy
Whether it is grilled squab at Spago or fettuccine Parmesan at Gennaro’s, restaurant leftovers have a common fate around Los Angeles. “ Lo buttiamo via, " explained a waiter quietly in Italian. “We throw it away.”
The homeless in a dozen cities across the nation, including Chicago, New York and Atlanta, dine nightly on scraps from the finest white-linen restaurants.
At upscale Chez Panisse in Berkeley, ham carved into perfect rectangles becomes prosciutto. Sometimes, three to five pounds of meat remains on the enormous bones when the chefs finish their wizardry. The leftover bones add an epicurean touch to soup served at the nearby McGee Avenue Baptist Church.
Whisked Off to Shelters
Hours-old crepes, bread and pastries from posh dining rooms in San Francisco and Oakland, where anything not fresh would offend patrons, are whisked off to pantries and shelters by corps of volunteers.
And at Schneithorst, a German restaurant in St. Louis where Sunday buffet tables are piled high until service ends at 1:30 p.m., trays of leftovers become treats for the down-and-out.
But not so in Los Angeles County, where restaurateurs and charity groups find it hard to meet health officials’ unbending interpretation of laws governing the doling out of leftovers.
Scraps left on plates, obviously, are strictly banned for reuse in any state. In Los Angeles, however, back-alley dumpsters also gobble up hundreds of pounds of unserved pasta, poultry and other food still steaming in restaurant kitchens at the end of each day.
“Any prepared product has the potential for contamination,” said Arthur Tilzer, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Los Angeles County Health Department. “We have to be sure the public is afforded a wholesome product to protect health and welfare.”
Two state laws, the Sherman Food and Cosmetics Law and the Uniform Retail Food Facilities section of the Health and Safety Code, set strict standards for the handling and distribution of prepared food. Products must be properly packaged and labeled to show all ingredients, origin and weight. In addition, prepared food must be delivered frozen or kept heated at more than 140 degrees, meaning that a roast chicken cannot simply be carted from a restaurant to a homeless shelter in the back of a van.
But many food and drug officials around the state said they are willing to bend the rules a bit to allow feeding the needy. They would not require, for instance, that a plastic tub of soup carry a sticker listing the vegetables and meat inside.
“We wouldn’t have a problem with restaurants giving food away as long as the food is transported and handled correctly,” said Richard Ramirez, chief of San Diego County Environmental Health Services. “We would not require labeling.”
Local officials, however, insist on the letter of the law, including the requirement that leftovers be labeled. Tilzer said the rules protect the public. “Everyone has the legal right to know what they are getting,” he said.
The danger with restaurant donations to the needy, Tilzer said, is that food given in good faith may become contaminated in handling. Potentially dangerous bacteria is ever-present in prepared foods and its growth can be retarded only through careful handling and strict attention to temperature controls, he said.
Those who violate the law are subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Hundreds of citations are issued annually, usually to people who cook food at home and sell it on the street. Tilzer said he cannot recall any incident involving an illegal donation to the needy, but the county has made its position well known to restaurateurs.
Few of Los Angeles County’s 18,000 restaurants are able, or willing, to meet the legal requirements. Instead, establishments such as Gennaro’s in Glendale or Spago on Sunset Boulevard simply discard leftovers.
“Sure, we feel bad about throwing food away,” said Frank Barrigan, owner of several restaurants and president of the Tri-City Area Restaurant Assn. representing restaurateurs in Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena. “But what are we to do?”
Roast chicken is a popular entree at Les Freres Taix in Los Angeles where 10 whole chickens are slowly cooked at a time. It is not unusual for 10 to 12 servings to be left at the end of the day.
“I don’t think you can ever program that correctly” to avoid leftovers, said Mike Taix, the general manager. The chicken and other leftovers are stored in garbage cans until it is picked up by pig farmers or rendering houses, which pay nothing for the food.
Dinner Rolls Distributed
At Orleans Restaurant in West Los Angeles, 10 to 12 dozen leftover dinner rolls each day are packed into plastic bags and given to the Salvation Army, which distributes them to the homeless in Memorial Park in Santa Monica. But other leftovers, such as jambalaya, “go in the garbage,” manager Mary Atkinson said, because of fear of running afoul of county health officials.
“It’s ironic,” said Marcia Hibsch Coppess of Arcadia, a researcher for the National Restaurant Assn. “Los Angeles is the hunger capital of the nation. Yet a lot of its best food ends up in the trash.”
There are an estimated 40,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County--more than in any other area of the nation, according to a study published in October by the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America, a privately funded organization based at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. The study, which was based on the number of people falling below the poverty line but not receiving food stamps, suggested that about 1.3 million people in the county--one out of every five--goes to bed hungry at least one day a month.
The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the largest in the nation, provided 22 million pounds of food last year--enough to supplement the diet of about 800,000 people a month. But the agency estimates it is meeting only half the need.
In Orange County, where 9 million pounds of food were distributed last year, another 9 million was thrown away by restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores and other food suppliers, according to studies.
Many Los Angeles chefs insist that waste is minimal, saying their operation is so efficient that there are no leftovers. “Today’s prime rib is tomorrow’s beef a la duchess,” said one.
New York chef and author Phillip Stephen Schulz disagreed. “Americans have a tendency to be a little overindulgent,” he said. “They always have leftovers. There has to be a way around the rules. Somebody has to do something about feeding the hungry.”
Carolyn Olney of the Los Angeles Interfaith Hunger Coalition said she occasionally receives calls from restaurants, caterers and other food retailers offering to give away meals. She said she cautions them about health regulations.
‘A Difficult Issue’
“There has always been an interest, I think, on the part of the restaurant people to share their food with the hungry,” Olney said. “But it is a difficult issue because of the need to get the food from the restaurant to the pantry or shelter right away.
“I am sorry to see anybody be afraid to donate food. But there are some real fears. Food poisoning is a very bad illness.”
Although there are ways that charitable organizations could meet the stringent county standards, the steps are prohibitively expensive and require wide organization, they said.
For instance, most charitable agencies lack equipment to transport heated or frozen food under the state requirements, Olney said. Even if transporters could meet the requirements, the pantries and soup kitchens usually do not have refrigerators or freezers to store the product.
Several organizations, including the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the Orange County Food Distribution Center, are trying to buy freezers, Olney said, to store the frozen and microwave foods increasingly donated by food manufacturers.
United Way last month began a program called Food Partnership to acquire refrigerated trucks to transport donated foods from regional centers to shelters and pantries. But that program is not geared to trucking prepared perishables, said Chris Renner, the program’s organizer. Distribution of restaurant leftovers “is inefficient,” Renner said. “We don’t have the facilities to keep and store it.”
Even if charitable organizations went to the trouble and expense to buy the equipment that meets the rules, restaurateurs might still be slow to work with them, according to county officials and agency representatives. That is because California lacks a law to protect food donors, no matter how good their intentions.
A restaurateur who provides food for the needy can be held liable if someone becomes ill. With potential donors having no control over the transportation and storage of food they donate, many are reluctant to participate, Olney said.
Samuel Haynes, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said that although the state has a Good Samaritan law, it applies only to those who provide emergency medical aid. “It is our consensus that there is nothing in the state statutes to protect restaurateurs” should their donation make someone ill, Haynes said.
Insurance officials said product liability policies commonly held by restaurants would cover them against claims. But to Gerry Brietbart of the California Restaurant Assn., the disincentive is still there:
“If a restaurateur has to worry about a shelter suing, can you imagine anyone who would give?” he asked.
Despite the fears, local, state and national organizations said they know of no significant incidents of food poisoning or lawsuits filed as a result of food donations.
Nevertheless, Los Angeles County officials said other counties and states that permit distribution of prepared foods are ignoring the risks. “I don’t think health agencies in those areas are looking at all of the ramifications,” Tilzer said.
Health officers in other counties said Los Angeles is taking a hard-nosed attitude. “I have a hard time seeing the distinction between selling food to customers or giving it away to the needy,” said Robert Castell, chief of operations for the Department of Environmental Health in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, where restaurant entrees are regularly distributed to the homeless without question.
“It’s still the same food, and if a restaurateur wants to give it away, he should be able to if he so chooses,” said Castell, who said that he speaks only for himself and that the county has taken no formal stand on the issue. “I believe reasonable men ought to be able to help the needy and serve the homeless without getting bogged down in a quagmire of regulations.”
Volunteers in several cities said they are more concerned about feeding the needy than the risk of lawsuits.
“The juxtaposition of waste and hunger in any city is ridiculous, sinful and totally unnecessary,” said Carolyn North, founder of Berkeley’s Daily Bread distribution program.
“Who’s going to sue?” North asked. “It’s so unlikely. It’s just an excuse used by people who don’t want to be bothered.”
The leftover program in Berkeley coordinates 100 volunteers who distribute 10 to 15 tons of food monthly from 50 businesses, North said. Most of the food is placed on tin trays or in plastic buckets and delivered within 30 minutes to shelters.
“We assume that restaurants are not going to pass off rotten food. And people in food kitchens are smart,” she said. “We have to assume that everybody has good sense.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District was not quite so trusting Monday when it approved a pilot program to donate cafeteria leftovers to local charities. In order to get the food, the charities have to sign an agreement freeing the district from liability.
In a dozen other states, such as Illinois, Missouri and New York, laws protect food donors from civil liability as long as they do not knowingly distribute spoiled food.
Good Samaritan Law
“Missouri’s Good Samaritan law is crucial to our program,” said Edward Perrin, office manager of St. Louis’ Operation Food Search, which distributes 65,000 meals a month. “Without it, we couldn’t move half the product that we do.”
It is not that California lacks a charitable bent. The state abounds with feed-the-hungry organizations, ranging from ones that get donations from food wholesalers nationwide to others that solicit goods from shoppers leaving supermarkets.
United Way estimates that food banks in Southern California collected 35 million pounds of donated food in 1984, the most recent year a survey was taken. The amount far exceeds donations in any other part of the country when measured against population. But almost all of the food was packaged and canned goods or raw produce, Olney said.
Studies in St. Louis, where a private group began collecting leftovers three years ago, found that this source boosted the number of meals served by 11%.
In New York City, about 1,575 plates of leftover food are served daily to the homeless, according to officials of that city’s private distribution system, City Harvest Inc. That accounts for about one-third of the meals served to the hungry there, officials said.
In the St. Louis program, some leftovers come from restaurants, such as the buffet fare from Schneithorst, which feeds 50 to 100 a week, but large donations also are made by hospitals, corporate and public cafeterias and fast-food outlets, Perrin said.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, requires its franchisees to discard cooked food more than two hours old. The surplus in St. Louis, worth more than $26,000 a month, is packed up and driven in cars by volunteers to nearby shelters. “We get a pretty steady stream of meals,” said Perrin, who coordinates pickups from more than 300 donors.
Managers of Kentucky Fried Chicken of California said that their food more than two hours old is either eaten by employees or discarded.
For some restaurateurs, helping the needy is a tradition.
“Our family has been donating pizzas to churches and charities since our business opened in 1947,” said Bill Bauer, 28, the third-generation Bauer at Father and Son Pizza in Chicago, which donates 80 to 100 pizzas every other week to the Perishable Foods Program of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a private food distribution network.
Some Los Angeles restaurateurs said they donate food on the sly after their businesses close late at night.
“There’s nothing wrong with the food, and we have no further use for it,” said one chef at a $50-a-meal Continental restaurant who drops off leftovers at a nearby pantry. “I couldn’t stand to see people rummaging through the trash for food. This way, they get it on a clean plate.”
In Santa Monica, a group called the Loving Cup, formed a year ago by a grocery store clerk, Julie Leirich, collects enough food to feed 300 people a week. About 20 volunteers distribute leftover pasta salads and croissants from a local deli--usually illegally since the packages are not labeled. Much of the food goes to the Sunlight Mission in Santa Monica and the Bible Tabernacle in Venice, Leirich said.
Despite the generous bent of many restaurateurs, organized distribution of prepared meals is a relatively new concept. Helen Palit, executive director of New York’s City Harvest, is credited with starting the movement five years ago.
A third-generation social worker, Palit said she got the idea while operating a soup kitchen in 1982 near Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
“People were coming to me to get their only meal,” she said. “To give them just soup and bread seemed pretty drab. I wanted to expand the menu.”
Palit frequented a restaurant, Fitzwillys, across from her New Haven soup kitchen. “Finally, one day I found out they have way too many potatoes left over, sometimes 25 gallons a day,” she said. “So I asked for the extras and threw it in my soup. It really stretched the food.”
Palit soon discovered that other nearby restaurants had surpluses or leftovers caused by mistakes, such as the time the chef forgot the ham--as called for on the menu--in his quiches. “So we had 25 great quiches at the soup kitchen one day,” Palit said.
“Everybody has unexpected overages or mistakes. We just told them that if they choose to give it, we would responsibly deliver it to our feeding program.”
The idea is catching on. Palit, who started the New York program in 1983, has helped launch similar programs in Philadelphia, St. Paul, Atlanta, Toronto and other cities.
Restaurant leftovers in New York are collected 24 hours a day by vans equipped with thermal boxes and regularly distributed to kitchens and pantries, usually within 10 blocks of the restaurant. Endorsed by the New York City Health Department, the program also provides insurance to donors.
Although the donors there are protected by a state Good Samaritan law adopted in 1981, City Harvest pays $35,000 a year for the insurance to give added protection and encouragement to restaurateurs, Palit said.
Nationwide, an estimated 353 million pounds of canned and packaged food--worth $500 million--was donated in 1986, markedly up from 131 million in 1985, according to Second Harvest, a Chicago-based private network of food banks and affiliates serving 38,000 charitable feeding programs. Most of those donations came from commercial manufacturers and distributors.
There is no nationwide estimate on the amount of restaurant food that ends up in soup kitchens, but volunteers in a number of cities said donations are rising steadily.
Save Our Strength, a Washington-based national network of restaurants, was formed in 1984 to encourage members to help feed the needy. Restaurateurs are urged to make better use of their surpluses and promote public awareness of the needs of the hungry, according to Executive Director Bill Shore.
The organization’s greatest support comes from California, which accounts for more than 100 of the 300 restaurants in 35 states that have joined, said Cathy Townsend, Save Our Strength assistant director. About 70 of the restaurants are in Southern California, most in Los Angeles County, she said.
Ken Frank of La Toque, and Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago, both serve on the five-member Save Our Strength restaurant advisory board. They help raise money by sponsoring charity affairs and encourage others to donate food to the hungry.
Frank, who also serves as the chef at his Los Angeles restaurant, feeds anyone who shows up hungry at the side door, inviting them in to a seat in the kitchen and serving them a full plate. But, at Spago and thousands of other restaurants around the county, his daily leftovers wind up in the trash.
“I wish we could do more,” Frank said. “There’s a need to fill out there. But it’s illegal.”