Ever wonder where all that excess resort food ends up? According to a recent report by LightBlue Environmental Consulting, a 300-room, full-service hotel typically creates $800,000—roughly 337,000 pounds—of food waste each year. Food waste has become such a problem that the United Nations listed it as one of its most urgent UN Sustainable Development Goals. Coming to the rescue: Organizations that connect hotels (and other food-serving establishments) with hungry people in the community.

I hadn’t given the idea of food waste much thought until I was staying at a fancy resort in Bali this past fall. Life was good: The beaches were as magical as I had expected and the food was even better. It was easy to forget about the outside world until I ventured into, well, the outside world. Right next door to the hotel was a slum. Seeing hungry families living in this state of squalor while I was living large less than a thousand feet away made my stomach turn, and not in the I-need-another-bowl-of-nasi-goreng kind of way.

After I returned, I started looking into the concept of food rescue, the practice of distributing food that would otherwise go into the trash. Many parts of the developing world (and the developed world, for that matter) have an excess of both food waste and hungry residents, but connecting the two is challenging. I discovered that several organizations are overcoming the hurdles to make it happen.

Here’s how it works: A group of super-motivated do-gooders picks up the edible surplus from places like hotels, restaurants, and cruise ships, loads up a refrigerated truck, and then drops the food at local food banks, shelters, and churches. (Don’t worry—they’re not picking up half-eaten room service leftovers, more like pans of food that never made it out to the buffet.)

One such organization is Hands for Hunger in the Bahamas. Started in 2008 by a group of students, Hands has “rescued” more than a million pounds of food and given it to Bahamians in need. (Without them, the food would most likely have ended up in the trash.) One of its biggest donors is the Atlantis Paradise Island resort.

“We generally collect hundreds of pounds of food with each visit to the [Atlantis] resort, and on a good week their donations can exceed 1,000 pounds of food,” says Keisha Ellis, Hands for Hunger communications manager.

Scholars of Sustenance (SOS) does similar work in Thailand via its Happy Spoons food distribution program. It works with hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets to collect their excess food and put it to good use in orphanages, shelters, halfway homes, and refugee centers. But because convincing potential benefactors that they aren’t going to get sued over their donations is such an uphill battle, SOS promises anonymity to its donors.

“Businesses are simply scared to donate because they feel they may get sued,” says Abigail Smith, SOS’s Thailand operations director. “Even explaining to them they will not, and that it is absolutely legal, does not always help. We offer the anonymity clause at our donors’ request. It helps put persisting fears at ease.” 

Smith is referring to Good Samaritan laws, which protect those trying to accomplish something good (donating excess food to the hungry) even if something bad results (potential spoilage making someone sick). The strength of these laws varies from country to country, and in places where food rescue is a relatively new concept, the  fear remains.

In 2012, Hilton announced a partnership with The Global Food Banking Network and Feeding America to donate safe surplus food from its properties. Food rescue is limited in many of its resort locales due to weak Good Samaritan laws, but in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Italy, the partnerships are strong.

“We are now also launching a structured program in Mexico and are looking at expanding our efforts in the Middle East and Africa,” says Maxime Verstraete, VP of Corporate Responsibility, Hilton. “Hotels have been setting up programs with local food banks to donate safe surplus food since much earlier than 2012. It was just a property-by-property approach versus a company-wide or country-wide initiative.”

With an estimated 795 million people going hungry and about one-third of all food produced being wasted, there’s a lot of room to redirect this food from landfill to the people who need it. Especially with so many properties popping up in developing countries mere miles from struggling communities, opportunities abound for hotels to make a profound difference. Including fancy resorts in Bali.

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