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  • Writer's pictureKimmer Collison-Ris, MSN, FNP-BC, MS CAM

How serious are we about hunger in our communities?

It's just past the holiday season where folks feel less charitable as they head toward tax season.

You don't have to look hard to understand that between people experiencing homelessness, the high prices of food on store shelves, and growing lines at food banks, we are in a crisis situation related to food insecurity. In contrast, the United States produces twice the amount of food needed to feed its citizens (Fast Facts About Agriculture & Food, n.d.). Why isn't that surplus of food being redistributed? Why isn't that surplus easily prioritized to local food banks, shelters, and schools?

Surprisingly the answer is both complex and political. The United States has enough food to feed hungry persons two times over. Seriously, we have a surplus of usable food! Yet, perishable food requires refrigeration and storage to distribute it and many of the individuals in need are spread out requiring special transportation.

Recently the homeless population has spread beyond urban areas, impacting our cities, towns, and neighborhoods with sprawling debris and refuse. Tent cities and aging motorhome communities tend to attract lawlessness causing concern to area residents and local governments. Yet these people tend to be food insecure and could use humanitarian efforts.

If we want to address food insecurity in our communities, we must first address both federal and state obstacles. Interestingly, it's good news at the Federal level. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 (PDF, 207 KB) (42 U.S. Code § 1791) allows Good Samaritans to donate food to the hungry without regulation or license. The law provides to all states including the District of Columbia limited liability protection for anyone making good faith donations of food and grocery products to nonprofits that feed the hungry. (Good Samaritan Act Provides Liability Protection for Food Donations, 2020).

In contrast, various state laws prevent such outreach. In some areas across the nation, private individuals can be ticketed or arrested for distributing food to the homeless in parks and public locations without a permit (Guarnieri, 2018). The belief is that doing so attracts homeless individuals and causes trash nuisance. Local governments further enacted rules requiring special permits that must be purchased to feed the homeless in public areas, making efforts to address food insecurity, both expensive and temporary.

The main concern reported at state and local levels is food safety. The growing number of individuals experiencing homelessness generates concern over food-borne illnesses. It also raises concern that individuals, groups, and small organizations that aren't properly registered contribute to a public health risk. Additionally, there is no mechanism to guarantee that donated food meets health and safety standards. Good Samaritans dishing chili from crockpots and stews from soup pots requires proper temperature regulation. Youth groups and school clubs passing out boloney sandwiches with mayo risk spreading food borne illness if the temperature isn’t sufficiently cool (Food Safety, 2022).

Concern is valid as millions of people acquire serious food borne illnesses (FBI) related to eating unsafe food. Approximately thirty percent of the population in developed countries are impacted yearly by food related illnesses (FAO & WHO, 2002). Reasons for this include poor food handling practices, insufficient temperature management, along with personal and environmental hygiene issues (da Cunha, 2021). Requiring permits implies volunteer food safety practices and knowledge; the goal leading to food borne illness prevention (Murray et al., 2017). But permits don’t provide prevention education to increase Good Samaritan’s safe food handling practices. Again, they discourage feeding the hungry as permits are expensive and temporary.

Food spoilage and deterioration is no accident. It is a naturally occurring process. To understand how to maintain the quality of food and prevent spoilage, we need to know what can cause it (How Food Spoils, 2015). Access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers (Food Safety, 2022).

 High-risk food consumption patterns and food handling in the home is critical in reducing foodborne illness (Nesbitt et al., 2009). Observational studies discovered significant numbers of individuals often demonstrated unsafe food-handling practices. Knowledge, intentions, attitudes, and self-reported practices unfortunately didn’t match the observed behaviors, suggesting that observational studies were a realistic indication of food handling practices in domestic food preparation. Improvement in food-handling behaviors through education tied to permits might reduce the risk and occurrence of foodborne illness (Redmond & Griffith, 2003). Is this why donation permits are required for passing out perishable food items or when serving potluck style to the hungry?

We could resolve the aspirations and concerns of the federal and local governments if we addressed obvious concerns:

1) Develop and support online food safety training at little to no cost.

2) Provide tax breaks to restaurants, cafes, and companies that want to donate their perishables.

3) Make it easy for food banks and shelters to get the training and equipment they need so they can collect perishables properly, store them safely, and redistribute them quickly.

4) Provide funds to cover any and all license/permit fees associated with being a Good Samaritan.

5) Organize efforts prompting state and local governments to embrace federal Good Samaritan efforts.

We have a national crisis of food instability and insecurity. We have surplus foods that could make a breathtaking difference in the lives of the elderly, anyone experiencing homelessness, children at daycare, students in school systems, single parents, food banks, and shelters. If we're to be serious about hunger in our communities, we must address and facilitate challenges at the local and state level so that feeding suffering human beings is not a crime.


da Cunha, D. T. (2021, December). Improving food safety practices in the foodservice industry. Current Opinion in Food Science, 42, 127–133.

Fast Facts About Agriculture & Food. (n.d.). American Farm Bureau Federation.

Food expiration dates don’t mean what you think - Carolyn Beans. (2023, June 6). YouTube.  

Food safety. (2022, May 19). Food Safety.

Feeding Resistance: Food Not Bombs Members Arrested in Orlando For Serving Meals in Parks. (2011, June 24). YouTube.

Here’s what you shouldn’t be donating to your local food bank. (2021, November 25). YouTube.

Is it legal to give out food without a permit? (2017, November 21). WMAZ.

Murray, R., Glass-Kaastra, S., Gardhouse, C., Marshall, B., Ciampa, N., Franklin, K., Hurst, M., Thomas, M. K., & Nesbitt, A. (2017, October). Canadian Consumer Food Safety Practices and Knowledge: Foodbook Study. Journal of Food Protection, 80(10), 1711–1718.

Redmond, E. C., & Griffith, C. J. (2003, January). Consumer Food Handling in the Home: A Review of Food Safety Studies. Journal of Food Protection, 66(1), 130–161.

Veiros, M., Proença, R., Santos, M., Kent-Smith, L., & Rocha, A. (2009, October). Food safety practices in a Portuguese canteen. Food Control, 20(10), 936–941.

Volunteers ticketed for feeding homeless; attorney speaks ahead of trials. (2023, August 3). YouTube.

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