WASHINGTON — In a land of excess, Bryna Monsein thinks her story has particular relevance.
Recently, the Bethesda, Md., resident decided to donate the leftovers from her daughter's wedding reception at downtown Washington's Mayflower Hotel to the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a homeless advocacy group.
"Wonderful food," she says. "Blackened sirloin, shrimp scampi, chicken piccata, wonderful pasta."
But the Mayflower, fearing it would be liable if anyone became ill, refused.
"I was really sad," she says. "To think of all that food going into the garbage was just pitiful."
But not unusual. A number of local hotels, citing health regulations, insurance and public relations concerns, refuse to redistribute food they haven't served. Still, caterers, who would presumably have the same concerns, have earned a reputation for being generous with their clients' extra food.
"Somehow caterers have been more sensitized than hotels and restaurants," says Carol Fennelly of CCNV.
Hotel managers say it is not a question of sensitivity.
"Once food is dispensed, at no time could it be given away," says Paul J. Sacco, general manager of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. "Health laws would dictate that you would not be able to reissue it."
Sacco's opinion was echoed by other hotel managers, but, according to Sidney Hall, chief of food protection for the District of Columbia's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, "There are no such regulations." Hall says hotels can donate food to charity "so long as the food is wholesome and has not been used by former patrons."
Reasoning May Not Hold
But Kevin McPhee, director of food and beverages at the Mayflower, insists that the hotel is legally liable for the food it prepares.
"It is not a question of donating food. We donate food. But donating food that has already been prepared for another purpose, that is another question," he says. "Particularly hot food. If it has to be reheated it is exposed to potential bacteria. We're very careful about these things. We have that liability."
But Fennelly says hotels are protected from liability for food "donated in good faith" by "Good Samaritan" laws in the District of Columbia and neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
Still, some catering directors, like Brent Ashton at the Omni Shoreham, are wary of "loopholes in the law."
Hall, the food protection chief, says the only condition he is aware of is that food be "transported in the proper vehicle . . . Hot food must be kept hot. Cold food cold."
Fennelly characterizes the hotels' position as "baloney . . . They can do it if they choose to. A lot of restaurants use it as an excuse not to give food away."
"I think a lot of the hotels couldn't necessarily be bothered," says the Rev. John Adams of So Others May Eat, an ecumenical food agency. "It's certainly not against the law."
Bryna Monsein, who doesn't want others to repeat her experience, has sought legal recourse. Her attorney, Earl Colson, has written a letter that he hopes will serve as the basis for future agreements between hotels and relief agencies. In it, a charity acknowledges "that we have received the food in good condition," and promises "to refrigerate and otherwise keep the food in a sanitary condition suitable for consumption."
The agency agrees to release the hotel "from any claim that may arise because of your having supplied this food." And also promises to "indemnify you against any claim made by any homeless person to whom we have provided portions of this food."
Legal Until Proven Otherwise
"It will stand up in court" as a contract, Colson says. "Whether a hotel will say, 'Oh, that does it,' and contribute the food, I don't know."
Kevin McPhee of the Mayflower says he has seen similar documents before. "What I don't know is, if tested, would it hold?"
In lieu of a test, Monsein recommends a client investigate a hotel's donation policy before booking an event.
"My feeling is, if people knew about it, they would make these arrangements in the beginning," she says. "All it involves is saying, 'Will you please?' "