A bill that would permit customers of catered events to choose between taking home any leftover food or donating it to a food bank could be on its way toward clearing its final legislative hurdle.

State Senator Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach joined John Knapp of the Southern California Food Bank Friday, August 8th, for a press conference in Venice to kick off a public awareness campaign to spotlight the senator’s legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 1443.

The Venice Center for Peace with Justice and the Arts served as the backdrop of the event, where approximately 20 homeless and disabled people sat on tables and ate lunch while Oropeza and Knapp discussed the merits of the bill and how it would potentially benefit thousands who rely on food banks for many of their meals.

“As you can see, and as many have tasted, there is nothing wrong with this food,” Oropeza said as she watched them eat. “Except that millions of tons of edible food like this are thrown away annually in California.”

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

When told that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had stated publicly that he would veto any bill that was not related to the state budget, Oropeza replied, “We’re going to be careful not to send it to him until after the budget is passed, so he won’t have a chance to veto it. We have a job to do, which includes establishing laws that are important like SB 1443.”

The senator said she would hold the bill in committee until after September, thereby thwarting the governor’s threat.

“If we have to wait until September, what’s another couple of months?” Knapp added.

“People are hungry in both the long and the short term, and some of the children that we were feeding 30 years ago are still receiving food because they simply have that tremendous need, especially with the economy in the state that it is.”

The senator said the impetus for the bill stemmed from an anecdotal situation that occurred recently.

“There was an incident that we became aware of where someone asked if they could personally take leftover food and donate it, and the restaurant that catered the event refused,” Oropeza explained. “That got us thinking about the need for this kind of legislation.”

SB 1443 has been welcomed by social service centers and nonprofit organizations such as St. Joseph Center in Venice, which has a food pantry that feeds 300 families a month, according to Va Lecia Adams, the center’s executive director.

“I think that SB 1443 would be a very helpful addition to the resources available to food banks,” said Adams.

The California Restaurant Association is one organization that does not support Oropeza’s bill.

“Our organization is opposed to the bill as it is currently written,” Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the restaurant association, told The Argonaut.

The opposition stems from liability concerns on the part of some caterers and restaurants around the state who are unclear if their companies could face legal challenges under certain conditions.

“Our concerns about liability have not been addressed yet,” said Conway.

Oropeza acknowledged that there are still some objections to the measure among certain caterers and restaurateurs.

“We have gone a long way to assure them that this is not going to be an onerous thing for their restaurants,” she said. “We’ve clarified that there will be no liability incurred by them.

“Their only responsibility in the bill is to provide the information to the customer when they sign a contract for catering that the customer may request that any excess food may be given away to a food bank or another appropriate facility.”

Knapp also suggested that there would be no liability on the part of those who choose to contribute food to social service providers and food banks.

“This legislation shows them that they are protected from liability and shows them that food banks will come and pick up the food,” he said. “They will have to do nothing except get their wonderful tax write-off.”

Conway said that other food banks have not taken a position on the bill or are not supporting SB 1443 because of similar concerns.

“There are many unanswered questions about this legislation,” said the restaurant association spokesman. “In addition to the liability question, there are also some logistical challenges that have to be worked out.”

Conway said that catering staffs could find themselves in the position of packing up food to be donated after working a long shift.

“It would transform the catering industry into doing two jobs,” said Conway.

The law would require that any food that is donated be fit for consumption upon its donation.

“If the customer decides that they don’t want to donate it, they don’t have to,” said Oropeza.

Conway said that his organization does support the idea of finding a way to feed those who are in need.

“No one is opposed to the concept,” he asserted.

Knapp agrees with Conway.

“I’ve been involved in food banks for the last 30 years, and I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Let’s not feed a hungry child,'” he stated. “That’s why this bill needs to be supported, because it legislates the fact that people will have this information and it will enable people to donate food.”

Oropeza said that due to the fact that the state and the nation are in the throes of a recession, her bill could be a big help to service centers who assist families who need help feeding their children and themselves, as well as the homeless.

“The food banks tell us that they believe that the adoption of this measure would see a 40 percent increase in the food donated in that part of their donation programs,” said the senator.

Adams of St. Joseph Center welcomes legislation that could be a boon for her organization in a time when donations to food pantries has dropped significantly.

“It gets harder and harder to locate resources, so this kind of bill could be very helpful to us, and I’m sure to other food banks as well,” said the St. Joseph executive director.

Representatives from the CLARE Foundation and the Westside Food Bank, both in Santa Monica, declined to comment on Oropeza’s legislation.

SB 1443 has passed the California Senate and the Assembly will take it under consideration before the end of August.