Waste Is Wanted: Feeding the Hungry Instead of Landfills

Ryan Scott

The need for proper nutrition is among the most primal. Yet in our own country, one in seven homes and one in five children in the United States are labeled as food

At the same time, food waste is also epidemic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States throws out 40 percent of its food every year. That’s not half-eaten sandwiches; that’s totally edible food that any hungry person would be happy to have. All told, this amounts to $165 billion in food waste every year.

Enter Darden Restaurants, which is addressing food insecurity by reducing food waste. Darden is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, owning and operating – through subsidiaries – more than 2,000 restaurants, including such brands as Red Lobster, The Capital Grille and Olive Garden. The company employs 185,000 people to serve more than 400 million meals a year, so it knows a thing or two about food waste. That’s why, through its Darden Harvest Program, Darden is tackling food insecurity by giving away instead of throwing away.

Launched in 2004, the Darden Harvest Program partners with local food banks to provide immediate hunger relief. This exercise in corporate philanthropy has tangible results for less fortunate families, with Darden donating 10.4 million pounds of food valued at $105 million in 2011 alone, and giving more than 60 million pounds of food to hunger relief agencies since the program’s inception. The program has met with acclaim, with former first daughter Chelsea Clinton reporting on the program this year for NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

The program helps not just the bellies of food recipients, but also their sense of self worth. Angela Woods, Director of Darden Foundation and Community Affairs, notes, “When you’re at a local food bank you expect that what you get is what you get,” she says. “You don’t expect well-prepared hot meals from the Olive Garden. You don’t expect lobsters and steak.” Woods has clearly been moved by the experience: “It is humbling.”

The Darden Harvest Program stands as a profound testament to the power of corporate giving to make a measurable impact in people’s lives. While donating to education and the arts are important, none of that much matters if someone isn’t getting enough food to eat. Darden Harvest is making sure that families have enough food in their bellies to make their other engagement programs matter.

Food banks need more than just food, however, as the best meal in the world is decidedly lacking if a person has nothing to eat it off of. When Darden revamped menus across nearly 700 Red Lobster locations, they also changed out the plateware used to serve those menus. Rather than just throwing them in the garbage, they found different ways for their trash to become treasure for an entire community; over 330,000 pieces were donated to hunger relief agencies in need of new dishes or Habitat Restore Resale Outlets, allowing the latter to raise money to help build new homes in the community. More than just providing a more pleasant dining experience for people receiving food assistance, this is a significant chunk of money that hunger relief organizations will not have to spend on replacing old plates. Where Darden had plates it didn’t need, local nonprofits were in need of plates (or at least the funds they could raise from selling plates), making this a win-win all around for everyone.

That said, Darden Harvest is only one example of Darden’s community impact. While hunger is the top concern for Darden Harvest, the Darden Foundation also targets education and preservation of natural resources, and local affiliates that drive community service ideas provide a diverse array of ways for Darden to get involved in the areas its restaurant serves. For example, employees in the greater Washington, D.C. area work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to clean up the bay. And in Atlanta, 24 out of the 40 Darden restaurants in the city came together to help the local Boys and Girls Clubs improve graduation rates and college attendance through efforts like college fairs and help filling out student aid and college applications.

Darden’s commitment to engaging the people and communities where they do business all leads to more engaged employees. “Service is innate to who we are as a company,” says Woods. And a more engaged employee base has a number of benefits that are essential in the restaurant industry. “Our community outreach helps employees improve their effectiveness at work. They feel better about being at work and in turn, improve their interactions with our guests. It’s an essential morale booster that consistently improves engagement across the board.”

Indeed, when reaching out to local communities, the Darden Foundation relies on employee engagement for maximum results. For example, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse worked together in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to donate $8,000 for local food banks, mobilizing hundreds of employees to help package canned goods at local food banks to ensure that hungry locals would get fed.

Engaged employees also act as a motivator for Woods. “The fact that employees contact me asking how we can help makes my job so meaningful,” she notes, remembering a time that an employee reached out to her about another surplus at a Longhorn Steakhouse location. “She called saying that they had excess steak knives and wondered what we could do with them.” This is in keeping not just with the corporate values, but also Woods’ own personal ethics. “If we have a surplus of something, we need to provide for those in need.”

Still, while employee engagement is important for any company, it’s not the primary motivator for Darden. “There’s an obligation to the communities where we live and work,” notes Woods, “both personally and as a company.”

Related articles:

Why Everyone Loves Your Company: Employee Volunteer Programs

Got Corporate Philanthropy? A Comprehensive Definition

What is the Triple Bottom Line?

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