Food, Lifestyle, News

Hunger Series: ‘We love getting donations … but we have to make sure we follow food safety regulations’

Statistics from Feeding America show that there are 652,760, or 1 in 10, people struggling with hunger in Massachusetts.

But each day, food continues to be tossed out by businesses and organizations after events and functions.

Can’t it be donated to those in need?

John Fischer, branch chief for commercial waste reduction for Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), said food waste represents the single biggest material that gets thrown out in the trash. More than one million tons of food gets discarded annually in Massachusetts alone.

A lot of times, food can be donated, Fischer said, but business owners may fear people getting sick, despite liability protection through the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act, which was passed in 1996 during the Clinton administration.

For many, he said, the issues are food must be delivered from the event to the organization, requiring time and money, and can’t be donated if it’s not stored at the proper temperature. At events, for instance, he said food may be left out for long periods and isn’t promptly returned to a safe temperature by being refrigerated or frozen.

“What has to be taken into account is the time and temperature of how it’s stored and if it’s safe to serve and eat,” Fischer said. “Sometimes that doesn’t work if it’s been served at an event, sat out awhile, packaged and sent out. Sometimes it reaches a point where it becomes risky to serve to people and not safe to donate.”

Fischer said those food safety and sanitary standards are part of the state food code, administered by the Department of Public Health.

That’s the biggest reason why Lynn’s My Brother’s Table, which serves free meals to those in need, won’t accept donated food from businesses for the most part, according to the organization’s executive director, Dianne Kuzia Hills.

“We love getting donations … but we have to make sure we follow food safety regulations,” Hills said. “A lot of our guests have health issues, so we try to be really conservative around our food safety, because we don’t want to make anybody sick.”

Mike Anderson, a volunteer with Youth Works from Greenfield, Ohio, gets blueberry scones ready for lunch at My Brother’s Table. (Spenser R. Hasak)

Some progress has been made in preventing food waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks feeding hungry people as one of its top priorities, as a strategy to reduce wasted food. It has asked businesses to consider how each strategy on the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy can contribute to a comprehensive food waste reduction plan.

Food thrown in the trash is a lost opportunity and wasted resource, Fischer said. Leftover food can be used to feed people or, if not, it can be composted to increase the productivity of soil, which goes back into the food system.

Or, he said, it can be returned to the food system by using it as animal feed.

The RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts program has worked with state and local health officials, food rescue organizations, food banks and organizations with established food donation programs through stakeholder meetings in 2015 to develop a Food Donation guidance document.

Another strategy, Fischer said, is that MassDEP has established a Commercial Food Material Disposal Ban, which bans disposal of food and other organic wastes from businesses and other institutions that dispose of more than one ton of those materials per week. He said about 1,700 businesses statewide fall into that category; the companies are finding other ways to manage those food materials.

More Stories In News