Second of two partsAlthough most supermarket chains participate in hunger-relief programs, liability concerns severely limit the amount of surplus food that they donate to the needy.
As a result, vast amounts of food go to waste across the state, an examination by California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California found.
Fearing liability if someone were to get severely ill, major retail grocery chains and restaurants are more likely to throw away meats, fruits and vegetables than donate to distribution centers.
Just ask John Wadginski, who is still bothered by the amount of food he discarded nightly while working in the delicatessen at a Safeway store in Davis.
"I had to throw out 10-pound hams that weren't even touched," said Wadginski, now 24. "It was easily 50 pounds of food a night."
Wadginski volunteered to take the surplus to a local shelter, but his supervisors declined his request.
"They told me no because if anything happened, they would be liable," Wadginski said.
Such attitudes prevail despite state and federal laws in place for more than a decade that protect businesses and individuals from liability should recipients become ill from food donations, experts said.
Since the only exceptions are gross negligence or intentional misconduct, a plaintiff would have to prove that a donor intentionally tried to harm another with a contribution of food they knew to be unsafe.
"Many of them don't understand," said Arlene Mercer, founder of Food Finders in Long Beach, which collects donations from supermarkets and restaurants for distribution to food pantries.
"We try to educate them that they are protected by the good Samaritan laws and our insurance and that neither have ever been challenged."
Some donations made
Waste from supermarkets is one of the big contributors, along with farms and restaurants, to an estimated 6 million tons of edible food in California alone that ends up in the trash.
Most grocery chains participate in some sort of hunger-relief program, but may limit their donations to bakery items - the kind of foods organizations need the least.
Safeway subsidiary Vons, for instance, makes regular donations to Feeding America - a supplier of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank - but makes sure its contributions are nonperishable.
"Safeway does not donate items that are not fit for consumption or could be unfit for consumption when they reach the final recipient," spokeswoman Teena Massingill said.
"Once the items are out of our control, we cannot guarantee that they will be kept under the specified temperatures."
Albertsons was the first supermarket chain to start a formal perishable food recovery program. Through its Fresh Rescue program, one or two employees in each Albertsons store work on donating surplus food to local organizations.
"Stores have been doing it on their own for a few years now, but we wanted to find a way to pull it all together," said Lilia Rodriguez, the public affairs manager for Albertsons. "It's eggs, cheese, milk, fruits - and it's those products that are really hard for food banks to get a hold of.
"Non-perishables are usually what they get."
The Ralphs chain has a program in about two-thirds of its stores that distributes food that has reached its "sell-by" date but remains edible. The company hopes to have the program operating in all stores within a few months.
Costco is among the chains that has opted not to participate in food-donation programs, although company records show it sends about 45 million pounds of food annually to compost.
Mercer noted, however, that the warehouse chain has offered her discounts, and occasionally free turkeys, for her Food Finders program.
Not willing to invest
Of the more than 90,000 eating and drinking establishments operating in California, just 940 contributed last year through Food Donation Connection, which links restaurants with hunger relief agencies. Those include nearly 400 Pizza Hut restaurants, and more than 100 KFC and 100 Chipotle Mexican Grill establishments.
"They think it is going to take too much time, too much effort and companies aren't willing to invest more time now to do things even though there is a financial upside to donating their surplus food," said Steve Dietz, director of business for Food Donation Connection.
He noted that only major corporations and large franchise owners are currently eligible for a tax deduction for food donation. A temporary allowance for small businesses expired at the end of 2009 and has not yet been revived by Congress.
A 2006 study by the California Integrated Waste Management Board showed that food made up 66 percent of the waste at full-service restaurants and 51 percent at fast-food eateries.
While hunger-relief organizations concede that not all of that food is recoverable or edible, they say that a concerted effort would make a huge difference.
"The amount of food that is wasted is heart-breaking to me because it can be harvested," said Louise Morris, the food coordinator at Shining Light Ministries in Garden Grove. "People are hungry and it's just thrown away."
This story is the result of a collaboration between USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.