In 2003, Metro Portland’s government set out to study the barriers and benefits of donating surplus prepared food. The metropolitan area was throwing away 360 million pounds of food annually. While their overall recycling rate was 57 percent, the diversion rate for food waste was much lower. The solid waste agency wondered what factors motivated restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores and schools to donate food; and what factors hindered them.
At the same time garbage trucks full of food waste were headed to the landfill, the Oregon Food Bank was struggling to find sources of nutritious food. This was when Oregon had one of the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity.
As the solid waste agency studied the barriers to food donation for their "Fork It Over" food diversion program, they learned that businesses had many concerns.
· Will we be liable if someone becomes ill after eating this food?
· How will we ensure the food will stay in the safe zones (<40 degrees or >140 degrees) until it can be consumed?
· How much additional time and labor will my staff need to spend?
· Can someone come pick this up for us?
The most surprising point about this story has to do with the perceived benefits, though. When asked what motivated them to donate excess prepared foods, the staff at the restaurants and grocery stores did not say “avoided cost of disposal” or “tax write-off.” Those were attractive benefits Metro Portland had mentioned but not the businesses' main motivation. Most stated that they joined the program because “it’s the right thing to do.” Food service staff disliked throwing away whole pans of lasagna, platters of baked chicken and bowls of salad when they knew many people in the region did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
For those of us who work with businesses to implement energy efficiency, water conservation and waste prevention projects, it is interesting to hear that more than just operational cost savings motivate business leaders.