My husband and I recently dined at a delicatessen in Lake Grove. Soon after being seated, our waitress placed two bowls on our table, one holding perhaps 10 pickles and the other a generous serving of coleslaw. At dinner's end, I asked our waitress to wrap up the rest of our coleslaw.
"You can't wrap up the coleslaw," she said. "The coleslaw is complimentary."
My jaw dropped in disbelief, and I said, "Let me get this straight. The owner of your restaurant would rather throw out my coleslaw than let me take it home?"
"Yes, it's complimentary, and you can't take home anything that's complimentary," the waitress said, explaining the deli's policy.
That evening I couldn't help but think about the countless patrons of that restaurant who each day are automatically brought big bowls of pickles and coleslaw. How many would actually eat any of it? How much uneaten coleslaw and pickles were thrown out every day?
And what about other establishments, like diners, where big complimentary baskets of bread and butter are automatically brought to tables? How much of that uneaten food is thrown out every day?
As the member of a family that has struggled through the Great Recession, somehow the idea of all that wasted food felt so wrong -- and in need of a fix.
So I called Island Harvest, the largest Long Island hunger relief organization, which describes itself as serving "as the bridge between those who have surplus food and those who need it." Its volunteers and staff "rescue" (i.e., collect) surplus food from various restaurants and wholesalers and distribute it to local soup kitchens and food pantries. The woman I spoke with explained that the need for food was greater than ever and that they would welcome appropriate donations from restaurants. "Appropriate" is a key word. The law says that once placed, uneaten food may not be served again.
I wrote a letter to the owners of that deli and a local diner we frequent.
Instead of automatically placing complimentary food on tables, I suggested, why not first ask patrons if they would like the food? Those who do would get it, and those who don't could have their share donated to a food pantry. The bottom line is that the same amount is offered, but a lot less is wasted, and a good portion that would have been thrown out goes to residents in need.
I explained that Island Harvest could supply containers for transport and even arrange for donations to be picked up. I also explained about Good Samaritan laws that protect good-faith donors from liability when they donate to a nonprofit organization.
To date, I haven't heard from the owners of either restaurant, but I hope I have planted a seed about waste and helping those in need. The time has come for food establishments to stop automatically providing complimentary food at tables.
Experts say perhaps 40 percent of food is thrown out in this country, yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010, more than 48 million Americans did not always have enough food for their families.
We should all be hungry for some change.Reader Patricia Schaefer lives in South Setauket.