State Senator Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach is reintroducing legislation that would permit caterers and restaurants to donate leftover and unused meals to soup kitchens and food banks across the state, during a time when contributions to service providers have decreased significantly.

Oropeza represents a portion of the Argonaut coverage area south of Santa Monica.

Senate Bill (SB) 35 was presented December 10th in the State Senate, a week after Oropeza was named chair of the Democratic caucus. The reintroduced legislation would permit those who engage caterers to decide to have leftover food donated to a food bank or soup kitchen or to take it home.

“There simply is too much perfectly good food being wasted in California,” Oropeza explained in an interview on why she has resurrected the bill. “Sadly, too many people are struggling financially and going to bed hungry. This is especially tragic during the holidays.”

According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, at least six million tons of food wind up in state landfills annually, making food the biggest single source of waste in the landfills.

“With the onset of the global economic crisis, I think this bill is even more timely now than it was a year ago,” Oropeza said.

Last year, Oropeza sponsored Senate Bill 1443, which sought to do essentially the same thing that SB 35 will accomplish if it passes. SB 1443 arrived on the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September at the height of the budget standoff between the Legislature and the governor, but Schwarzenegger had vowed in August not to sign any new bills that were unrelated to the budget.

This year Oropeza is more optimistic that the proposed legislation may get Schwarzenegger’s signature if it makes its way through the various legislative committees.

“I’m very hopeful that the governor will sign it because he is very compassionate and is concerned about those who are less fortunate and for those who are really struggling,” the senator said.

Last year, organizations representing caterers and restaurants opposed SB 1443.

“Our organization is opposed to the bill [SB 1443] as it is currently written,” Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, told The Argonaut in September.

The opposition stemmed largely from liability concerns on the part of some caterers and restaurants around the state that were unclear if their companies could face legal challenges under certain conditions.

Oropeza said that this time around she would seek the input of food industry organizations in helping to craft the bill to make it more palatable to them.

“We’re taking a different approach this time to have them assist in designing the actual bill,” Oropeza noted. “We realized that we need to bring caterers into the process a little earlier.

“It’s a matter of figuring out what’s feasible for them logistically and how to handle the question of liability.”

Conway agrees.

“We definitely want to work with the senator to address these issues,” he said. “There are real liability issues when you are transferring food from one place to another.”

Conway also touched on what his industry feels is another important consideration for the bill to gain their approval.

“Food safety is always a big concern of ours, and that must be addressed as well,” said the association’s spokesman.

Some service providers who run food pantries and soup kitchens on the Westside are not very familiar with Oropeza’s proposed legislation, but support the need for more contributions and donations during a period that has been marked by a severe downturn in charitable contributions and foodstuffs.

“We don’t know enough about the bill yet, although we do like the idea of more food donations,” said Genevieve Riutort, the Santa Monica-based Westside Food Bank’s director of development.

Riutort said that in the most difficult past years, contributions would slow down by approximately four percent. In an illustration of how the economic meltdown has affected even affluent communities, she said that this year donations are off by 32 percent.

“That’s almost unheard of,” Riutort asserted. “We’re seeing the need for food really going up this year.”

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has seen an increase in its contributions, but the need for assistance has gone up dramatically.

“What we’ve distributed at this point in the year is the same as last year, and donations are at 33 percent more,” Jeff Dronkers, chief programs and policy officer for the regional food bank, said. “The problem is that the demand has increased by 41 percent.”

Dronkers said that while families from low-income backgrounds continue to be the primary clients of food pantries and soup kitchens, he has seen a rise in requests from middle-class families this year.

“I’ve been in the food pantry business for 14 years, and I’ve never seen the influx that we’ve seen this year,” he lamented, echoing Riutort’s comments.

Robert Brooks, a Santa Monica resident and the proprietor of Tru Grub Catering in Venice, gives away meals to the homeless on occasion, as well as to food banks when there is leftover food from a wedding or event that he has catered.

“I donate food whenever I can, because I know what the homeless problem is like in Santa Monica,” said Brooks, who has been in business for approximately 18 months. “[SB 35] sounds like something that I could support.”

Dronkers, who also supports Oropeza’s legislation, thinks that since the senator is planning to consult with the catering and restaurant associations, SB 35 has a much better chance this time.

“The food donor is always worried about liability,” he pointed out. “If restaurants and caterers were assured that they would not be liable for any food that they wanted to donate and that there was explicit language that spelled that out, I think they would be more likely to support the bill.”

In the meantime, Oropeza encourages her constituents to do what she does — purchase extra canned goods at the grocery store and donate them to a food bank or soup kitchen.

“For those of us who can afford to do it, it would really make all the difference in the world to a needy family,” the senator said, “especially during the holiday season, with so many families finding themselves in very difficult financial circumstances.”