The Guide to Doing Good

San Diego-based pet supplies and services retailer PETCO is known for helping four-legged friends in need through its PETCO Foundation, but the company also extends aid to people. Four years ago, when Lisa Hurst was hired as director of travel, meeting, and event management for the company, PETCO began to donate leftover prepared food to food rescue programs after its large, 2,500-attendee annual conference.

During one recent event, the food and beverage supplier grossly overestimated the amount of food needed, Hurst says. Attendees noticed and began to voice their concerns to Hurst, who says she was glad to be able to tell them that the food would not be wasted.

"Attendees walked away feeling really good that PETCO had not let the food go to waste, and that we had really made an effort to make an impact in the community and made sure people in the local area had received something good to eat that day," Hurst says.

The other option is seeing heaps of extra roast chicken and vegetables thrown in the garbage after an event; enough to cause even the most experienced planner a little shock and twinge of guilt—and it should, say planners who incorporate donation plans into their programs. Food rescue is growing more popular with meeting planners as they realize how easy it is, planners say, although some facilities and caterers continue to resist it over unfounded fears of liability.

Philanthropy Facts

Most food donated after an event is in the form of extra plated meals that are packaged up and given to food rescue organizations, but buffet-style food items can also be donated, as long as donors follow certain guidelines on perishable items, Hurst says. Anything with milk or cream is quick to spoil, but well-cooked meat and vegetables are usually acceptable. Large trays of extra lasagna, sliced meat, and salads are greatly beneficial to shelters and soup kitchens, she says.

"I usually work with either the hotel or the center to see if they have relationships in the local community with shelters or organizations that benefit from that. Obviously, you want it used the same day," Hurst says.

If the property doesn't have a preferred aid organization it works with, Hurst says she will contact large aid agencies to see if they have a local partner that can accept food rescue donations.

"I haven't run into a convention center or a hotel that doesn't have one or two community contacts to help provide that information. I do, however, find it is pretty rare that a planner asks for that information," Hurst says.

Hurst says she will tell the facility of her intentions to donate post-event food during the initial site visit, and then she nails down the details of which organizations will receive donations about two weeks before the event.

The Samaritan Gap

Hurst says some facility managers have told her that she is the first planner to request post-event donations, and that many planners may not be aware of just how easy it is to arrange.

"I think most planners don't realize that it's an option and that it is something you can give back to the community and to organizations that are desperately in need of what you have to offer," Hurst says. "The facility can really manage the bulk of it for you. It's a pretty seamless process."

Organizations such as America's Second Harvest, which facilitate food rescue operations, are also eager to work with corporations on post-event food donations, says Kate Mudge, food rescue manager for Second Harvest Heartland, serving the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. Second Harvest will even drop off packaging materials prior to the event and arrange a pickup in a refrigerated truck to make donations easy and quick.

"Usually, I'll have the corporate representative in on it, but when it comes to arranging where the food goes and where we pick it up, I'll ask to be connected to the caterer or whomever they are working with," Mudge says.

Second Harvest Heartland uses refrigerated trucks and delivers donated food the same day, so almost everything that hasn't been served and is properly stored can be donated, Mudge says. However, the organization asks planners to ensure the donations are substantial. Sending a large refrigerated truck for one or two pans of lasagna is not efficient.

"We have large trucks, so we ask for it to be a fair amount of food. If they are just going to have a couple boxes of food I will set them up directly with our agencies, such as shelters, emergency food providers, and after-school feeding programs for kids," she says.

Donors are also given a receipt that can be used for tax purposes and are protected from any liability through Good Samaritan laws, Mudge says.

The Truth About Giving

Most post-event food donations that Second Harvest Heartland receives are initiated by the company holding the event, rather than the facility or third-party meeting planning company, Mudge says. Some F&B providers are used to giving extra food to catering staff as a perk, and even resist efforts by their customers to donate to those in the greatest need.

"First they say it's against the health codes. It's not," says Amy Spatrisano, principal in Meeting Strategies Worldwide, a Portland, OR-based conference management and consulting firm that specializes in "green" meeting strategies. "We explain the Good Samaritan law and say if it is really against the health codes, then we need to see it in writing. Of course, they never have it."

The company routinely donates extra food and supplies from every event it manages, and has done so since it began business 12 years ago.

"Our mission is about being environmentally responsible, which also for us means socially responsible. We make sure that any leftover items—food is one of them, but also bags, pens, or pencils—that have another purpose get donated. We work with the facility and food-and-beverage managers ahead of time so that they know we want the food donated."

Pushback from facilities or catering companies that resist donating extra food is common, but can be easily overcome with persistence. "Don't take 'no' for an answer," she says. One potential catering provider that Meeting Strategies Worldwide contacted refused to donate food, explaining that leftovers were given to staff members.

"My client would rather have people less fortunate get the food, rather than have the facility use what we just paid for to feed their staff," Spatrisano says. "My client wants to choose where the food goes. [One caterer] actually said to me: 'Well, some of the people that work for us fall into that category.' I told her that probably wasn't an argument she wanted to use if she wanted this piece of business. Telling us you don't appropriately pay your people isn't going to get my client to want to hire you."

There is no set lead time that companies need to allow for arranging donations, Spatrisano says. Telling a facility from the very start of planning about your intentions to donate leftover food is a good idea, but the logistics do not take much time to arrange. Every city is different, with different aid organizations, but national organizations such as Second Harvest or United Way can help locate appropriate charities. Convention and visitors bureaus can also help to arrange post-event donations, she says.

"We start by asking the CVB if they know anyone, and usually they do or they'll do the research for us," Spatrisano says.

Besides food, foam core board that is used for signage can be donated to schools for art classes. Bags can also be donated to schools. Pens, paper, and other supplies are useful to community centers, also located by a CVB.

In addition to food rescue, PETCO donates other extra items after an event such as bags and t-shirts to organizations for children, Hurst says.

Looking Out for Number One

There are many benefits to being generous and donating extra food and supplies after an event, Spatrisano says. Planners should ask for a receipt so they can tell attendees exactly what was donated and where. Donating food and other supplies is easy, and it shouldn't be a burden on a planner already overwhelmed with event details.

"The planner should have the expectation that the food-and-beverage person is going to take care of this for them. It's not something the planner should have to arrange," Spatrisano says, adding that companies can look for caterers that have a regular relationship with local charities.

Second Harvest's Mudge agrees, adding that her organization likes to work directly with those handling the food.

"Plan ahead, try to work with the caterer, or let me work with the caterer to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible," Mudge says. "If a corporation decides to do something like this, sharing it with their employees is always a good idea. We can drop off brochures to put on the tables so that the people who are eating are aware that the extra will go to charity."

The end result, says PETCO's Hurst, is that you can give your company and attendees the knowledge that they gave back to the community and to people in need, with very little extra effort.

"It's really easy. It doesn't take a lot of effort, and it makes you feel really good," Hurst says. "You've added value to that community, and it doesn't even take 10 minutes of your time to find out the information you need."

Lisa Hurst, director of travel, meeting, and event management at the San Diego-based pet supplies and services retailer PETCO, has been incorporating food rescue programs into the organization's meetings since she joined the company four years ago. We asked her to answer some of the questions planners looking to start similar programs might have. Here's what she had to say:

successful Meetings: How far in advance should planners begin to think about how to donate extra food after an event?

Lisa Hurst: Questions about food donations can be part of an initial site visit. Organizations like Second Harvest that take food rescue donations ask companies to contact them a few days ahead of the event so that refrigerated trucks can be arranged for pickup. Second Harvest can also drop off bags and pans for food packaging before the event, if needed.

SM: What can be donated?

Hurst: The organization you plan to donate to should be able to tell you what food items it can accept. Second Harvest and other organizations like it have refrigerated trucks that are able to accept prepared food as long as it has not been set before the public. Pans of prepared pastas and meats can often be frozen to make donations easier. Bread, packaged snacks, and fresh produce also make great donations. Make sure to label food with name of product, date, and your event location's name—no one likes to get a big package of mystery meat.

SM: What if someone gets sick from eating leftover food at an event? Is my company liable?

Hurst: The 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors from liability when the food is donated in good faith. Working with a recognized and established aid organization also ensures that donations are handled properly.

SM: Planning an event is time-consuming. What can planners who are too busy do? Who is the best choice to delegate food rescue logistics to?

Hurst: Your F&B provider should be able to handle all of the arrangements. Convention and visitors bureaus should be able to help you find appropriate charities in your destination, and your facility managers should be helpful as well.

SM: Does food rescue really make a difference in the community?

Hurst: According to America's Second Harvest, if just five percent of food wasted in the U.S. is recovered, 14 million people could be fed.

The organization's program in the Twin Cities distributes more than 145,000 pounds of rescued food monthly to 54 agencies. Crisis shelters, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and senior centers can all benefit from food donations.