Restaurant leftovers could feed the hungry

STEVE BARNES
Section: Life-Food,  Page: E1

Date: Thursday, May 17, 2007

More than three-quarters of a million New Yorkers worry about going hungry every day. In official parlance, they ``experience food insecurity,'' and their numbers have grown by an average of 10 percent annually over the past several years. In 1980, New York City had 39 food pantries; today there are more than 900. A total of 3,000 pantries, soup kitchens, food banks and shelters statewide provide meals to 2.1 million people every year. In the Capital Region, 40,000 people each month visit such emergency food providers (EFPs).


"It keeps getting worse," says Mark Dunlea, who has been with the Hunger Action Network of New York State for more than 20 years. Long the organization's executive director, Dunlea became associate director in 2000 and runs its Albany office.


To try to combat the problem, HANNYS is again hosting its Feast for Famine fundraiser, now in its 17th year. Scheduled for Wednesday, May 23, at The Egg in Albany, it will feature food, coffee, tea, microbrews and wines donated by more than two dozen Capital Region restaurants, stores and other food providers. The event draws upward of 300 people and raises $12,000 to $14,000. "I'm always shooting for $30,000, but we've never gotten there," says Dunlea. There's no question the area's restaurant community is generous. Angelo Mazzone, owner of Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia and Angelo's 677 Prime in Albany, tells me he annually gives $70,000 worth of food, gift certificates and other support to charities; LeGrand Serras, eminence grise of Real Seafood Co. in Colonie, says he passed the million-dollar mark several years back after decades of donating; Paul Parker, chef-owner of Chez Sophie in Saratoga Springs, wasn't joking when he told me, "There are some days ... when calls for donations will equal or outnumber calls from customers and/or vendors."


But despite an admirable willingness to donate a tub of coleslaw for a Girl Scout picnic or a multicourse dinner for eight for a charity auction, one thing most restaurants don't do is give food on a regular basis to the genuinely hungry.


I called a randomly selected eight restaurants participating in Feast for Famine. (There's no need to name them.) None donates surplus or leftover food to pantries or shelters, except on a very occasional basis. Most said they don't because of liability issues - they worry about a lawsuit if someone becomes sick from their leftovers.


This shouldn't be a concern. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, "protects all food donors from liability for all donations they make in good faith," says Joanne Dwyer, director of food sourcing for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. One of its programs, called Moveable Feast, collects surplus, prepared, perishable food from stores, restaurants, institutions and other producers for delivery to food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens. (Like HANNYS, the food bank is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.)


The other nondonation reason cited by all the restaurateurs and chefs I contacted was, basically, they think it would be a hassle.


"I hear that all the time," says Dwyer, who concedes, "I guess it could be kind of a pain."


Not according to Dee Fullerton, general manager of Smokey Bones in Colonie. The restaurant every month donates approximately 500 pounds, the equivalent of 4,000 servings, of ribs, pulled pork, chicken, mashed potatoes, soup, desserts - anything that freezes well. The food bank supplies aluminum pans, which restaurant employees fill with surplus edibles and stack in the walk-in freezer for collection once or twice a week by the refrigerated Moveable Feast truck.


"It's no problem at all ... and I know our employees are proud to do it," says Fullerton. Smokey Bones' corporate owner is Darden Restaurants, also the parent of the chains Red Lobster and Olive Garden. "Helping the local community by donating is just part of the (Darden) culture," says Fullerton.


"Anything that will freeze and reheat well, we donate it," says Andy McMaster, general manager of the Olive Garden in Colonie. That means no spaghetti, salads or breadsticks, but 100-plus pounds weekly of lasagna, meatballs, sausage, sauces and soups.


Besides Olive Garden and Smokey Bones, the only restaurants regularly supplying food to Moveable Feast are three area Popeye's locations, Dwyer says; supermarkets give vastly more prepared food than eateries.


Restaurants that do the volume of an Olive Garden or Smokey Bones are more likely than small places to produce enough surplus to justify the time and expense of sending the Moveable Feast truck for a pickup. But Dwyer would welcome as little as 50 pounds a week.


"Getting into the habit might be difficult at first," she says, "but once you get started, it's easy, and it makes a difference."


Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.





****FACT BOX:****


Food fundraiser


FEAST FOR FAMINE


What: Fundraiser for the Hunger Action Network of New York State


When: 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesday


Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany


Some participating businesses: Barcelona Restaurant, Bayou Cafe, Bongiorno's, Cascade Mountain Winery and Restaurant, Debbie's Kitchen, DeJohn's Restaurant & Pub, DiviniTea, El Loco Mexican Cafe, The Ginger Man, Grandma's Pies, McCadam Cheese, Miss Albany Diner, Mr. Subb, My Linh, Olde Saratoga Brewing Co., Rock Hill Bakehouse, Shalimar


Tickets: $40


Info: 434-7371


Note: Restaurants interested in donating to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York's Moveable Feast program should call Joanne Dwyer at 786-3691.