For years, kitchen workers at Lin's Fusion Chinese restaurant scraped out buffet pans at the end of the night and chucked the leftovers into the garbage.
Manager Jin Lin -- whose family owns the restaurant on Blackstone Avenue that was formerly China Buffet -- cringed at the thought of six to eight large foil pans of food going to waste each day.
In a county that had the second-highest hunger rate in the nation in 2011, food that could feed the poor was landing in the bottom of a dumpster.
Fresno County feeds the nation with its billions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetable crops grown here, but it doesn't meet the needs of the people going hungry in its own backyard.
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The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 40% of all edible food in America -- from the farm to the refrigerator -- goes to waste. Wasting just 15% less food would be enough to feed 25 million Americans.
It's hard to pin down just how much is wasted at the restaurant level. About 4% to 10% of food bought by restaurants becomes kitchen loss -- both edible and inedible -- before reaching diners, according to the NRDC report.
People in Fresno could use some of that food, said Kathryn Weakland, director of development and communications at Poverello House. The agency feeds anyone who needs a meal, along with homeless who live in the organization's community of wooden sheds, a women's shelter and a nearby tent city.
"We serve 1,200 meals a day. Honestly, I think we could use whatever (restaurants) bring," she said.
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While some in the vast food industry, such as grocery stores and local food producers, donate thousands of pounds of food each year to nonprofits, it's rare to hear about restaurants and caterers donating food.
For example, just two of Fresno's hundreds of restaurants -- Little Caesars Pizza and Elbow Room -- donate prepared food to the Poverello House. More donated in years past, but not lately, Weakland said.
The restaurant industry faces multiple obstacles when it comes to donating, such as the lack of a delivery system that doesn't take employees away from their kitchen duties. Concerns over safe storage of food play a big role, too.
Working toward change
There are solutions to those obstacles.
Organizations that make it easier for restaurants to donate are ready to help. Laws protect restaurants from being sued and nonprofits that accept food have their own food safety training. Tax deductions give an added benefit.
Many restaurants have surplus food, but it is in quantities so small that restaurateurs don't think it's worth anything, said Jim Larson, program development director for Food Donation Connection, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based company that partners with the National Restaurant Association to get surplus food to organizations that can use it.
"It could be four pizzas a week," he said. "It doesn't need to be 50 pounds every time."
Such systems are harder to set up than you might think.
Lin, the buffet manager, said he tried for eight years to set up a food-donation system. He wanted someone to pick food up regularly. Various well-intentioned churches volunteered and would pick it up for several weeks at a time. But sooner or later participation would flag and the restaurant would go back to throwing out the food.
"Our food (was) wasted," Lin said. "We never had a chance to use it."
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