Why Starbucks will donate unsold food to needy

Starbucks has announced a new program to donate unsold food to charity. It could help minimize waste and help those in need.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
A man drinks a beverage in front of a Starbucks Coffee, Wednesday, March 9, 2016 in New York. Starbucks will donate unsold food to the needy, it recently announced.

In the near future, Americans in need could have access to free, ready-to-eat food from Starbucks.

On Tuesday, the coffee giant announced a new initiative to minimize waste and help provide food for the hungry. FoodShare partners with two charity networks, Food Donation Connections and Feeding America, to arrange to have local charities pick up unsold meals from Starbucks locations across the nation and delivering them to food banks. Starbucks expects to donate 5 million meals by the end of the first year of the program.

The concept isn’t new. Last month, a law was passed in France that requires supermarkets to donate excess or unsold food. In America, a range of food establishments, including Chipotle, KFC, Taco Bell, and Olive Garden, have already turned, at least partially, to charity as a way of minimizing food waste.

What’s behind the generosity?

“When we thought about our vast store footprint across the U.S. and the impact we could make, it put a fire under us to figure out how to donate this food instead of throwing it away,” said Jane Maly, brand manager, Starbucks Food team, in the press release.

Hunger is an expansive issue in America. In 2014, 48.1 million Americans lived in households that did not know where their next meal was coming from, according to the USDA. In total, 14 percent of household faced problems with finding stable food sources. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an estimated 70 billion pounds of food waste every year in America – a number that has prompted the USDA and EPA to call for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030.

More and more companies are seeing there could be a mutual solution for both issues. Companies foremost want to sell their products, but “the last thing an operations person making the food wants to do is turn around and throw it away… [they] want to make sure it gets to someone who can utilize it,” Cheryl Poff, Director of Operations for Food Donation Connections, one of the FoodShare partner networks, told The Christian Science Monitor.

And donating isn’t all about altruism either. There are many incentives and bonuses for companies that give.

When people and companies think of food donation programs, what pops to mind are legal liabilities and expansive program costs. But neither of those concerns hold up much anymore, Jim Larson, program development director at Food Donation Connection explained.

In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act that protects establishments making food donations from criminal and civil liability, outside of gross neglect. And many of the costs associated with donation programs can be written off with tax incentives.

Currently, similar programs are dominated by national and large-scale chains, but there is potential for smaller mom-and-pop food chains to adopt donation programs as well.

“The tax incentives are there for small operators as well. They may have to invest in specific storage containers, but it's a pretty small cost when you consider the benefit,” Mr. Larson told the Monitor.

Starbucks’ stated goal is to give away 100 percent of food that can be donated from its over 7,000 US locations, a spokesperson told the Monitor via email.

“Our hope is by taking this first step, other companies will see the possibility for their participation and together we will make great strides in combating hunger,” said Cliff Burrows, group president, Starbucks U.S. and Americas.

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