California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Food Donation


Schools can donate leftover food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Western Region Office and the Nutrition Services Division of the California Department of Education have determined that leftover foods may be donated to charitable feeding programs rather than be discarded. [1]

  • Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Board of Education passed the Healthy Students, Healthy Families, and Healthy Communities resolution to allow the district to donate excess cafeteria food to needy families and children. The donations will be limited to packaged food items that have not been served to students as part of the district’s school meals program.
  • As a result of district wide food recovery program in Tulsa, Okla., 4,000 pounds of food are recovered each month from 20 participating schools. This means approximately 20 tons of food waste is recovered each year, resulting in avoided disposal costs and additional assistance to the needy. Many other schools have also had successful programs as published in the "Best Practices" manual by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

A majority of what students throw away include packaged food or fresh whole fruits and vegetables. These foods can be placed on a donation table, a reuse box or “sharing tables.” Sharing tables are carts and/or tables where children can place unconsumed food and beverage items (pre-packaged food and beverages, unopened wrapped food and beverages, or food items with a peel) that they choose not to eat/drink. These tables provide an opportunity for other children to take additional helpings of food or beverages at no cost to them. In many instances, food and beverage items, especially unopened milk, have been reused by child nutrition operations as part of a reimbursable meal, served a la carte, and/or used in cooking. The California Department of Education provides specific related guidance in a Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin, including best management practices for school lunches.

Excess prepared food that is not served may be donated to charitable organizations, soup kitchens, convalescent homes, childcare centers and other facilities. Some donation recipients may pick up the food for same day distribution. Collection staff are trained on how to handle the food to minimize any possibility of food-borne illness, though this has generally not been a problem. Often, there are questions or concerns regarding liability; however, the Good Samaritan Law (PDF, 207 KB) protects food donors by limiting food donor liability to gross negligence or intentional misconduct.


  • Keeps usable food out of the waste stream
  • Reduces disposal costs
  • Feeds hungry people in your community
  • The donation project can be incorporated into the school curriculum (e.g. civics, social sciences)

How to Get Started

  1. Obtain approval from district administration.
  2. Determine the types and quantities of excess foods. Determine if there is enough prepared food to take to a charitable organization. (Note: If there is routinely too much prepared food, kitchen staff may need to reassess the types or quantities of food being served. Remember waste prevention first!).
  3. Contact your local jurisdiction for assistance (e.g., local resources, etc.)
  4. Determine who will be the recipient of the reusable food (e.g. other students, after school program, charitable organization, etc.)
  5. Establish a relationship with a food bank or food rescue program.
  6. Establish guidelines for what will be allowed in the food donation area (e.g. packaged food only or fresh fruits, etc).
  7. Set up the food donation area.
  8. Educate all participants in the program including school principals, cafeteria staff, teachers and students.
  9. Monitor the program and make adjustments as necessary.

Factors for Successful Implementation

  • Anticipate potential barriers and build solutions into your strategy. For example, some schools may have a no sharing policy.
    In this case reusable food should be taken off-site to a charitable organization.
  • Make sure copies of the Good Samaritan Law are readily available to all participants. Local food banks are familiar with this law.
  • Check with the California Association of Food Banks to locate the nearest food bank or provide donation information.
  • Involve the entire community: school business officials, faculty, students, parents, and community leaders.
  • Make food safety a priority.
  • Organize! Establish and maintain good scheduling and record keeping systems.


Food Donation--Save Money and Help Fight Hunger. Outlines financial and promotional benefits for businesses that donate surplus food. Includes contacts for food banks and food rescue programs as well as online resources and publications, from CalRecycle and U.S. EPA.

For a copy of the School Nutrition Programs Guidance Manual or to order publications, please contact:

California Department of Education
1430 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814-5901

Best Practices for Food Recovery and Gleaning in the National School Lunch Program. This manual contains descriptions of school food recovery efforts that can serve as models for other school districts in the country that want to get involved in donating excess food to the needy.

USDA Food Recovery and Gleaning Initiative (PDF, 251 KB) (Nutrition Program Facts). This fact sheet covers the definition of food recovery and gleaning, provides U.S. food waste statistics, describes the initiative, addresses USDA nutrition assistance programs as well as liability and how to get started.

USDA Policies and Procedures for Gleaning (Food Recovery) (PDF 142 KB). This resource includes policy for donating surplus produce to eligible food recovery organizations to help reduce hunger. It also describes methods to encourage agencies to participate in food recovery activities.

Bill Emerson's Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (PDF, 207 KB) (Public Law 104-210). This Act limits food donor liability to gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

Food Banks and Food Rescue Organizations compiled by CalRecycle.


[1] From the California School Nutrition Guidance Manual, April 1997.

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Last updated: September 22, 2009
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