Distributing Donated Food

Service with a Side of Safety

Many ministries are involved in community outreach programs that involve distributing food. From food banks to soup kitchens, ministries are helping neighbors with spiritual and physical needs. As your ministry distributes food, it is important to keep the following risk management practices in mind.

Handle Food Safely

  • Discard food that is expired, has a broken seal, looks or smells bad, or does not appear to be consumable for any reason.
  • If your ministry accepts cold food donations, ensure your refrigerators and freezers are set to the correct temperatures and working properly.
  • Label food that contains common allergens (such as milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish), especially if serving food to individuals in an unpackaged or unlabeled form.
  • When serving meals, ensure your staff and volunteers know and follow food safety guidelines (see Safe Food Handling and Serving Guidelines).

Consult an Attorney

  • When restaurants and groceries donate food items to nonprofits, sometimes they require the organizations to sign ‘hold harmless’ agreements. Always review them carefully and consider consulting with your ministry’s attorney to be sure you are not accepting more legal responsibility than appropriate.
  • Consult with local officials to determine if your city or county has any regulations or zoning laws applicable to a food donation operation.

Make Sure You’re Covered

  • Consider requiring volunteers and food recipients to sign a release form (such as an Activity Participation Agreement) to protect your ministry from legal responsibility in the event of a food-related incident. If obtaining signed release forms is not practical, notice signs may be utilized.
  • Develop guidelines outlining who qualifies to receive food and the amount/frequency of food allowed.
  • Unless your ministry chooses a 24/7 model, establish days and hours of operation. Post this information where individuals seeking food can easily see it.
  • Work with your ministry’s insurance agent to ensure your ministry has adequate coverage.

Civil Immunity

Your ministry may also be afforded some protection from liability by federal law. When your ministry facilitates the transfer of food items to individuals in need or other food pantries, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act may provide you with some protection. This Act promotes food recovery and gleaning by limiting the liability of donors to instances of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Local and state laws may also provide immunity from civil liability regarding food donation operations.

It’s important to note that even if some immunity arguably applies to a claim against your ministry, in most cases an attorney will still need to be hired to defend your ministry. If you have a liability policy with Brotherhood Mutual, insurance coverage will likely apply to pay the costs of such a defense.

Additional Resources