October 22, 2019

Giving your leftovers to charity

Anybody who has grown up in a Jewish home and attended key family functions, from bar mitzvahs to weddings, knows that the food served during celebration is the life of the party.  

It’s comforting to know, though, that meals created to celebrate life also can help sustain it for others in need. When the leftovers pile up afterward, there are numerous area organizations serving women, children, veterans and others that might benefit from the extra delectables. 

Finding the right destination for your nourishing gift may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Some organizations make it their job to rescue leftover food and efficiently get it to people and other agencies. Food Finders (” target=”_blank”>lafoodbank.org) are among several outfits serving greater Los Angeles.

“Almost every large event has food left over, and if hosts or party planners let us know ahead of time, we or a representative from one of the agencies we serve can pick it up,” said Diana Lara, vice president of operations for Food Finders. 

 “Since our establishment 25 years ago, we have ‘rescued’ over 108 million pounds of food. This is roughly enough for about 40,000 meals per day. We are non-denominational and give to any of our 270 partner agencies (i.e. missions, shelters, charities, churches or synagogues) with a valid 501(c)3 nonprofit status.”

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has been involved in collecting packaged food since its inception in 1973, but public interest in donating sealed, untouched leftover food led to the launch of the Extra Helpings program in 1998, according to Susan Acker, a communications associate for the food bank. Now, when a party host, planner or caterer contacts a coordinator at Extra Helpings (323-234-3030), the coordinator tries to locate the closest agency open to receiving the leftover food.

“Donors should bear in mind that we serve all of Los Angeles County, which includes 670 partner agencies,” Acker explained. “One million people are served every year, and 400,000 of those people are children. Another staggering statistic is that one in every six L.A. residents is hungry.

 “Donors, meanwhile, should also be mindful that many who benefit are working people with families who have jobs but still can’t make ends meet. In 2013 alone, Extra Helpings distributed nearly 5.3 million pounds of prepared and perishable food from caterers, restaurants, groceries and private parties with extra food.”

Making preparations in advance is important. Acker said there is not an Extra Helpings coordinator on hand 24 hours a day, and it is not always possible for them to respond to prospective donors immediately after an event. Instead, reach out once you’ve made the decision on where your event will be held and what foods will most likely be leftovers.  

Check on the policies of your venue as well to see if the hotel, caterer, restaurant banquet hall or other entity allows the donation of leftover food. Some prefer to give remainders to their staff.

Other practical tips: Package the leftovers thoroughly (or be sure the restaurants or caterers can do it), keep the packages properly refrigerated until someone arrives to pick them up, and let coordinators know the time and place of your event so they can time the pickup to take place immediately after it ends. 

Kosher food and other specialty items are welcome, Acker said, as long as the prospective recipient tells the coordinator and donor the food will be accepted.

“One of our main focuses here is that the food we distribute is nutritious. What foods individual agencies are willing to accept is at their discretion, as they can opt out if they feel a specific item on the event menu is not appropriate for their clients,” she said. 

“There is a law, the [Bill Emerson] Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (1996), that protects the donors from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient,” she added.

Leaving Los Angeles for your big event and headed to Israel instead? Leket Israel, the country’s food bank, organizes food rescues to help to the nation’s needy. For more information, call American Friends of Leket Israel at (201) 331-0070.

For some people, this one act following a simcha becomes a gateway to a more long-term commitment. Lara can remember several bar and bat mitzvah teens who committed to a post-event donation and then decided to make the cause of fighting hunger the foundation of a mitzvah project. Others continue to contribute as regular volunteers with the organization into their high school and college years.

“When [one volunteer’s] daughter got bat mitzvahed, she went beyond donating her leftovers, volunteering regularly and earning service hours at her high school. She’s been very committed to our organization,” Lara said. 

“Another young lady last year organized a large food drive as her mitzvah project covering several communities, in addition to donating leftovers. It was such a success that her younger brother is now volunteering and working with us for his mitzvah project.”