Donating wholesome food for human consumption diverts food waste from landfills and puts food on the table for families in need.
- Donations of nonperishable and unspoiled perishable food from homes and businesses help stock the shelves at food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters.
- Donations of perishable prepared foods -- typically collected from restaurants, caterers, corporate dining rooms, college campuses, hotels, and other food establishments -- also help feed families in need, although such donations usually require special handling such as refrigerated trucks, insulated coolers, bags or blankets and prompt distribution. Consult with your local health department for guidelines on safely donating perishable food items.
- Donations from farmers and gleaners help put more fresh produce in the diets of families in need.
Federal provisions to encourage food donation
The federal government has established three notable provisions to encourage the donation of wholesome food to those in need:
Limited liability protection for donors
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act grants liability protections to “persons and gleaners” who make good faith donations of food to nonprofit organizations for ultimate distribution to needy individuals at zero cost or at a good Samaritan reduced price. New amendments passed on January 5, 2023, also grant liability protections to “qualified direct donors” who donate directly to needy individuals at zero cost. Qualified direct donors include: retail grocers, wholesalers, restaurants, caters, and more (see below).
Under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, the following food donation standards apply:
Persons and gleaners : Persons and gleaners shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food that the person or gleaner donates in good faith to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to needy individuals at zero cost or at a good Samaritan reduced price.
Nonprofit organizations: Nonprofit organizations shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food that the nonprofit organization received as a donation in good faith from a person or gleaner for ultimate distribution to needy individuals at zero cost or at a good Samaritan reduced price.
Qualified Direct Donors: Qualified Direct Donors shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food that is donated in good faith directly to needy individuals at zero cost.
Qualified direct donors are defined as retail grocers, wholesalers, agricultural producers, agricultural processors, agricultural distributors, restaurants, caterers, school food authorities, or institutions of higher education.
Note that only a subset of 'persons,' those defined as ‘qualified direct donors,’ also receive liability protections when donating in good faith directly to needy individuals at zero cost.
For more information, see USDA’s Frequently Asked Questions about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (PDF, 188 KB).
The information presented is not a guidance document and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship.
Enhanced tax deductions
The Internal Revenue Code 170(e)(3) (PDF, 253 KB) of 2011 provides enhanced tax deductions to businesses to encourage donations of fit and wholesome food to qualified nonprofit organizations serving the poor and needy. Qualified business taxpayers can deduct the cost to produce the food and half the difference between the cost and full fair market value of the donated food. In December 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, making permanent and extending the enhanced tax deductions to all businesses, including C-corporations, S-corporations, limited liability corporations (LLCs), partnerships, and sole proprietorships.
A number of organizations offer guidance on tax deductions for food donation:
- The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Food Recovery Project offers a free resource Federal Enhanced Tax Deduction for Food Donation: A Legal Guide (PDF, 16 MB)
- The Natural Resources Defense Council offers a one-page A Farmer’s Guide to the Enhanced Federal Tax Deduction for Food Donation (PDF, 63 KB)
Federal agencies and donations
The U.S. Federal Food Donation Act of 2008 (PDF, 142 KB) specifies procurement contract language that encourages federal agencies and contractors to donate excess wholesome food to eligible nonprofit organizations to feed food-insecure people in the United States.
Anyone can be a food donor
Anyone can donate food, including farmers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, cafeterias, hotels, cruise ships, and households, just to name a few.
- EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map is an interactive tool that displays the locations of nearly 1.2 million potential industrial, commercial and institutional excess food generators and more than 4,000 potential recipients of excess food including anaerobic digestion facilities, composting facilities, and food banks.
- Gleaning is the collection of excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, and other sources to provide it to those in need. Typically, volunteers partner with a farm to glean excess fresh produce and deliver it to a food bank or food pantry. Learn how to develop a successful gleaning program with this USDA toolkit (PDF, 630 KB).
Places to donate food
There are food recipient organizations across the country. The following sites offer tools to help donors find nearby food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and shelters that may accept wholesome, excess food.
- Feeding America is a national network of food banks, individuals, national offices, and corporate and government partners working to combat hunger in the U.S. Use the Find Your Local Food Bank tool to locate food programs by state or zip code.
- Ample Harvest is a nationwide effort to educate, enable, and encourage gardeners to donate extra produce to local food pantries. Use their Find a Pantry tool to donate food you grow or buy.
- The Homeless Shelter Directory is a crowdsourced listing for people who want to find and donate food and/or supplies to their local shelter.
Dr. Jean Buzby
USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison