You probably know by now what food waste looks like. But do you know what it sounds like? That sound has really stuck with me after years spent working in the restaurant and catering business. A cross between a “plop” and a “slurp,” it’s the noise made by trays full of fingerling potatoes, veggie lasagna, and pounds and pounds of other perfectly good, edible food sliding into a trash can that’s already half-full.
From prime rib at a Christmas Eve buffet, to whole loaves of bread left on the salad bar every night, to platters heavy with happy hour hors d’oeurves, it was heartbreaking to see – and hear – all of that waste. Especially knowing that one in four Vermonters struggles with hunger. Couldn’t that food go to a better use?
Why yes. Yes, it could.
Here’s how to stop feeding your event leftovers to the landfill – and make sure they nourish actual people, instead.
First things first: Health & safety guidelines
Worried about liability? The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 protects those who donate “apparently wholesome food.” As long as your caterer follows a few simple health guidelines—which we hope they’re already following!—leftover food can be donated without fear.
The Vermont Department of Health recommends these best practices for food donation:
- Store meat, eggs, tofu, and other potentially hazardous foods at 41 degrees or below
- Write down the ingredients so people with allergies can avoid a dangerous reaction
- Write the preparation date on the container (prepared food must be discarded after seven days)
Above all, avoid the Danger Zone. The Danger Zone for prepared foods is between 41°F – 135°F. Keep your food below or above this zone! Any food that has spent more than two hours in the danger zone is not safe to eat, and shouldn’t be donated.
Option 1: Let guests take it “to go”
As long as food on the buffet line or in the kitchen has been kept out of the danger zone, guests can safely take leftovers with them when it’s over, whether the food had been served at the event or was kept in the kitchen.
While catering companies can set their own policies on leftovers, there are no legal or health restrictions in Vermont that prevent them from providing takeout containers to guests.
“Food that has been served properly at an event can be offered to those guests or staff to take home,” says Elisabeth Wirsing, Food & Lodging Program Chief at the Vermont Department of Health.
Waste-buster tip: Provide takeout containers for your guests, or encourage them to bring their own. Hiring a caterer? Ask them to provide the containers. Bonus tip: Learn more about whether compostable products are right for your event. Visit Compostable Products on the Green Mountain Compost website.
Option 2: Donate food
If your event has leftovers that were never set out for consumption at an event, they can be easily donated to local food shelves or shelters. According to Wirsing, “Extra prepared food that was handled properly and not previously served can be donated to food rescue agencies or other organizations.”
Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf (CEFS) and Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) are two Burlington-area organizations that accept donations of prepared food. CEFS operates “the county’s foremost soup kitchen,” according to their website, serving a hot meal every day of the week out of their headquarters at 228 North Winooski Ave in Burlington. Bring a tray of leftover lasagna and “we’ll serve it up the next day,” says Kathy Wall, CEFS Chief of Provisions.
Depending on the type of food you donate, your leftovers will be repackaged for distribution to families in need, or it may simply be heated and served “soup kitchen style.”
Expecting leftovers? If you can, call the potential recipient before your event. Brad Docheff, CEFS Operations Manager, says he likes to get a heads up so he can make preparations for the food—and give guidance to the caterer or cooks before the donation arrives.
CEFS accepts donations from 8am – 4pm Monday to Friday. If your event ends outside of those hours, be sure to keep it refrigerated until you’re able to drop it off.
COTS also serves a meal every day of the week. They accept prepared food donations at 95 North Ave in Burlington.
Of course, if you ask any donation organization how to donate food, they’re going tell you that they want well-labeled food that meets all of the guidelines laid out by the Department of Health. But if you start throwing out different scenarios, they’ll start to loosen up a little bit. “We absolutely prefer if donated food comes with a list of ingredients,” says Brad at CEFS. “It makes life a lot easier for us. But if it doesn’t, are we going to let it go to waste? Definitely not.”
Waste-buster tip: Ask your caterer if they donate leftovers. If not, contact your local food shelf or soup kitchen to check their requirements, and work with your caterer or a willing guest to make sure high-quality leftovers feed hungry people.
Don’t forget…you can compost what’s left
If donating just isn’t an option for your event, you can still easily keep it out of the landfill. CSWD Drop-Off Centers accept up to 30 gallons of food scraps per day (fees apply if brought without trash). Or bring any amount to Green Mountain Compost (GMC) in Williston – you can drop off up to 30 gallons at no charge.