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.
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.
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."
But late last year, the restaurant and the Fresno Rescue Mission hammered out a plan that has been running smoothly since.
Buffet leftovers are refrigerated at night. Every morning a driver from the Rescue Mission picks up the pans of meat and vegetables. The driver also occasionally picks up from the Silver Dollar Hofbrau.
That haul becomes part of the more than $500,000 worth of food donated yearly from the public, grocery stores and local producers to the Rescue Mission. It serves 700 meals daily, many of them to 85 men at the downtown mission who are in the process of getting back on their feet after getting out of prison or living on the streets. Meals also go to a companion shelter for women and children, Rescue the Children, that now houses 30 people.
The Rescue Mission donations are separate from work that Food Donation Connection does locally with organizations like the Breaking Free Revival Center, a church that meets in an office park just behind the Doghouse Grill on Shaw Avenue. Church volunteers drive to restaurants such as Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Auntie Anne's Pretzels three times week.
Volunteers pick up the frozen food and then store it in freezers at the church.
Breaking Free, which also collects food from grocery stores for twice-a-week food giveaways with families in need, gives the restaurant food to more than a dozen organizations, such as shelters and homeless ministries, said Lana Foote, director for food distribution.
Last week, a freezer was stocked with frozen lobster tails from Red Lobster, bags of frozen soup from Mimi's Cafe, and bags of frozen pretzels from Auntie Anne's.
"It's a day old," Foote said of the pretzels. "It's still good."
The food would soon be shipped out to Pine House and Magnolia House, halfway houses that help people with mental health issues -- from schizophrenia to PTSD.
Even though just nine restaurants, mostly chains, worked with Food Donation Connection in Fresno last year, the 17 locations donated the equivalent of 98,000 meals.
So why don't more restaurants donate?
Not all restaurants have waste. Some -- particularly mom-and-pop restaurants -- have learned to cut waste during the recession and don't have much waste at the end of the day, restaurant industry professionals say.
When they do have extra food, many use it -- turning leftover chicken into a chicken pot pie for the next day's menu, for example.
And, some food can't be donated. Once it's on a plate in front of a diner, leftovers must go straight to the trash. And caterers say that customers have first crack at leftovers because they paid for the food.
But plenty of restaurants and cafeterias throw out perfectly good food, said Andrew Shakman, president of Portland, Ore.-based LeanPath, a company that uses food waste tracking systems and scales to help restaurants and cafeterias cut waste.
"It's often a bit of a surprise," he said. "It's often not the center of the plate ... It's the mashed potatoes and the salad bar and maybe veggies you've blanched a little bit too much of."
Aside from a lack of leftovers at small restaurants, food safety and quality is a huge concern in the industry, said longtime restaurateur Mike Shirinian. His restaurant, the Elbow Room, occasionally donates to Poverello House after catering events.
Restaurants follow loads of food safety rules and procedures, from maintaining internal temperatures of meat to specific ways of bringing temperatures down rapidly, he said.
"If I brought food down to the Poverello House and, God forbid, if somebody got sick, the health department would meticulously ... track it all the way back," he said. "We live in a world where every little thing that might possibly happen could be on CNN. It could be Facebooked, Twittered or whatever."
No restaurant owner wants to hear on the news that their good deed made 200 people at the Poverello House sick.
But there are protections for restaurants and caterers, and the California Restaurant Association encourages businesses to donate surplus food.
Nonprofits that accept prepared food, including the Rescue Mission, The Poverello House and Breaking Free, have food safety training. Food Donation Connection requires that its volunteers have training.
Freezing the food takes away many of the risks from trying to keep food at a certain temperature for food safety reasons during transport and sorting.
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law in 1996, protects food donors from civil and criminal liability. An additional layer of state laws protects California restaurateurs, said Angie Pappas, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.
"We have never encountered an instance of somebody who was involved in a food donation program where they did get people sick and suffer fallout from that," she said. "Those laws were intended to ease those fears."
Larson of Food Donation Connection said he sees the hesitancy that restaurants have about donating food.
"We have story after story of someone thinking it's not going to work," he said.
But once they start donating and they meet the people the leftover food is helping, "it's a complete 180 and it's an eye opener," he said.
Need is great
Fresno has so much more need, Breaking Free's Foote said.
The Rescue the Children shelter eventually will house 175 people who will need three meals a day.
When Breaking Free started its food distribution three years ago, it fed 20 families. Now, it's 250, and the church is about to lose the prep space it has. Breaking Free can't afford its $5,000 a month rent and will have to find a new place by March 15.
Meanwhile, the demand from organizations such as shelters and homeless ministries for restaurant food keeps growing. Breaking Free delivers food to those organizations between one and three times a week.
"We could give to them every day because of the need," Foote said. "We have such great demand out there."
How to help
-- To learn how to help feed the hungry, contact The Poverello House at (559) 498-6988.
-- To donate to the Fresno Rescue Mission or Rescue the Children, call (559) 268-0839.
-- Restaurants can learn more about donating surplus food by contacting Food Donation Connection at 800-831-8161 or online at FoodtoDonate.org.
-- To help the Breaking Free Revival Center with its rent, contact the church at (559) 291-5317 or 2755 E. Shaw Suite 120, Fresno, CA 93710.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @BethanyClough on Twitter.