Every year, approximately 40% of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten, much of which is still safe for human consumption. At the same time, in 2019 approximately 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, were food insecure or lacked regular access to a sufficient amount of food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle. Under ordinary circumstances, this troubling paradox demands immediate attention. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for a solution is even more apparent.
COVID-19 has placed additional stress on food systems and exacerbated hunger in the U.S. Children who normally rely on their school cafeteria for one or two meals per day and others who benefit from federal nutrition programs are now home with limited access to food. Seniors and others with limited mobility who rely on community dining centers are transitioning to delivered food. Workers who have been laid off or otherwise seen their income interrupted due to social distancing orders are expected to increasingly turn to charitable organizations or other interim measures for meals.
Meanwhile, we are also seeing a disruption in supply chains that has led to an increase in food surplus at some parts of the food chain. Even as food is flying off the shelves in grocery stores, many suppliers and restaurants are finding themselves with reduced demand due to social distancing measures that have shuttered certain businesses. Universities and other large institutions that have closed or significantly reduced operations are also now left with excess food. And farmers who typically sell at farmers’ markets or distribute produce through farm-to-school channels are searching for new outlets.
Food donation provides a critical solution. Food banks and other food recovery organizations that rescue safe, surplus food and redirect it to those in need play an essential role in combatting both issues of food loss and waste and of food insecurity. This is particularly true in light of COVID-19. From New York to Alabama to Washington and beyond, food banks are facing greater demand, yet are also facing greater pressures as a result of limited resources.
Recognizing the widespread desire to support communities in need and promote more holistic solutions to food insecurity, this page offers answers to the most commonly asked questions about food donation and provides access to resources on food recovery during COVID-19.
Actions for Businesses Looking to Donate Food:
Monetary vs. In-Kind Donation
Food banks benefit from in-kind donations, consisting of non-perishable as well as perishable food items that are still safe for human consumption. Monetary donations are also a beneficial means of supporting a local food bank, as many food banks have specialized contracts to purchase food at a discounted rate and can use funds to meet the needs of their specific community.
Actions for the General Public Looking to Support Food Donation:
If someone becomes sick after consuming my food donation, will I be automatically held legally and financially responsible for harm?
No. The United States provides broad legal protection for food donors. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (Emerson Act) provides a federal baseline of civil and criminal liability protections for food donors and the nonprofits that receive and redistribute those donations. To receive this protection, food donors must comply with certain pre-requisites set forth in the Emerson Act. For more information on these requirements, the scope of federal liability protection, and additional state-specific protections, check out the following:
Isn’t throwing away food a cheaper, more economical option than donating safe, surplus food?
No. While donating food does involve some associated expenses (storage, transport, etc.), the federal government and many state governments offer financial incentives to help offset these costs and encourage donation. At the federal level, tax incentives are available to all businesses in the form of general or enhanced deductions. All but three states with corporate income tax conform to the Internal Revenue Code (I.R.C.) calculation of corporate income tax in lines 1 through 28 of IRS Form 1120. In states with I.R.C. conformity, businesses may be eligible to also count the federal food donation tax deduction in the calculation of their state income taxes. In addition, thirteen states currently offer state-level tax incentives specifically for food donations. For more information, see:
Are there food safety requirements to consider when donating food?
Yes. A key barrier to the donation of surplus food is the lack of knowledge or readily available guidance regarding safety procedures for food donation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many food donors may face additional questions about food packaging and the steps to reduce potential infection during food pick up or delivery, and other concerns in addition to general food safety. For more information on best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and for more general information, see:
Can I donate food once the date on the label has passed?
Maybe. Date labels are the dates on food packaging that are accompanied by phrases such as “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” “enjoy by,” and “expires on.” Consumers, retailers, or manufacturers may discard food due to confusion about selling or donating past-date food. However, most date labels are only used to indicate freshness or quality. There are currently no federal laws regulating food date labels with the exception of those on infant formula, but some states have adopted their own regulations, and several states do restrict past-date donations of certain food items. For additional information on how to navigate this legal framework and to better understand which foods are safe to consume or donate after the affixed date has passed, see the following: