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On Assignment: Restaurant chain donates unserved food to needy families

By Chelsea Clinton
Rock Center Special Correspondent

Every day, more than 50 million Americans are at risk of not having enough to eat; yet, each year in the United States, 40 percent of our edible food is simply thrown away. Today, in the face of unprecedented need, there is no one face of the hungry - they are children, parents, grandparents and even the working poor.

Many of us think about hunger when there are canned food drives around Thanksgiving, but hunger doesn't have a season. Year-round, there are millions of pounds of unserved food that could be put to better use. At one Fortune 500 restaurant company, excess food is being put to use.  The food is finding its way from restaurant kitchens to the places where people need it most, including missions, shelters and after-care programs. I saw this program firsthand in Orlando, Fla., earlier in April.

Darden owns the largest number of casual dining restaurants in the country, including such well-known brands as Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster. In 2004, Darden management noticed that some of its restaurant managers were engaged in what they called 'random acts of kindness.'  Instead of throwing away unserved food at the end of each night, some managers were donating it to local food banks and hunger relief organizations. It was a small percentage of places, but Drew Madsen, Darden president and chief operating officer, told me that it was enough to make the company take notice. In 2004, donating became a company-wide policy and today, in every one of Darden's more than 1,900 locations, staff members stay extra time to prepare, package, freeze and store food for pickup by local food bank partners. Darden calls it their 'Harvest' program.

Darden's now systematic acts of kindness come with a clear financial benefit - it receives a tax benefit for its donations. The company is also protected from legal liability if someone becomes ill from its donated food through the Good Samaritan Law, provided restaurants have properly prepared, packaged and labeled the food. When I asked Madsen if it would be cheaper to just throw the food away, he admitted it would be, but said that his company sees nourishing its communities as part of its mission. It was something I heard echoed in the kitchens and dining rooms of the Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouses I visited. It's clear that for the people who work throughout the Darden brands that harvesting the food for the hungry is as much a part of their job as making and serving food to their customers.

Dave Krepcho, president of the Second Harvest Food Bank, told me he thought more programs from more restaurants like Darden's could make a significant dent in our hunger challenge.

Editor's note: Click here to watch Chelsea Clinton's 'Making a Difference' report from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.