Trashed: When restaurant leftovers get dumped
Like many Charlottesville food servers, Selita Crews has seen her tips drop, and she's struggling. She sees something else that troubles her: the trashing of uneaten food.
"There's a lot of hungry people that could use that," says Crews, 40, a single mom, who's asked to take it home.
"The fried food, the chicken, the baked chicken, the pot roast– it all gets thrown away," she says. "People are trying to feed their families."
Certainly there are more hungry people out there than ever. The Thomas Jefferson Area Food Bank served 87,000 meals in November– an increase of 17,000 meals over the same month a year earlier.
"We're trying to increase the amount of prepared foods we take," says Ruth Jones at the Food Bank. "We're well-suited for nonperishable, frozen and refrigerated foods." Prepared foods, she notes, do require more guidelines.
The Salvation Army, which used to serve 80 dinners at the end of the month and now serves 150, accepts day-old bread and restaurant donations.
"A couple of restaurants, if an order is messed up and can't be re-served, they freeze it and save it for us over a week," says Marnie Allen at the Salvation Army.
For a long time, the Salvation Army picked up leftovers at Golden Corral, although it no longer does, says the restaurant's general manager, Shawn Johnson.
"Meat, typically, we can reuse," he says, explaining that steak can be cut into beef tips. But as far as letting employees take the food that's left on the buffet at the end of the night, he worries that might encourage wasteful over-production. "Extra things," he says, "might end up in a box."
Up at China King in Shopper's World, there are rows of steam tables and even sushi.
"We're not going to reuse food," says owner Dui Chen. "We cook it fresh for customers." At the end of the evening, leftovers go in the trash. And according to Chen, the wait staff has not seen a reduction in tips.
How about Cici's Pizza, where a family of five can eat for under $25?
"It all gets thrown away," says the manager, Chris. ("I don't give out my last name," he explains.) He, too, believes employees who aren't allowed to take food home "don't over-make food." Staff does get to eat a free meal, and the restaurant makes donations to schools for fundraisers, he says.
"The vast majority, sad to say, gets thrown away because of liability insurance," says William Proffitt, the owner of the Wood Grill, where tip-losing Crews works. "You can't donate it."
Proffitt was unaware that the General Assembly passed a law last year that removes liability for restaurants that donate unused food to charitable organizations.
"If the food is still safe, it's a shame to throw it away," says Eric Myers at the Thomas Jefferson Health District. "Some places are not doing that at all for fear of liability."
What about letting employees use food that's going to be thrown away? "That would fall under company policy," says Myers. "Nothing I know is in the code that prohibits employees taking food at the end of the shift."
In Washington, a group called D.C. Central Kitchen that serves 4,500 meals a day notes that picking up leftover food from restaurants is a "business model that doesn't work for us any more," says CEO Mike Curtin.
"We are very wary of buffets," he adds. "From our standpoint, the food on that is not recoverable." Besides length of time the food has been out, dirty fingers and coughs on the food are "absolutely" a concern.
Curtin, who used to own a restaurant, understands the fear managers have of extra food being made to go home with employees. He suggests a staff meal using excess food. "A staff meal is an easy way to control that and create good will," he says. "That's a big win."