Wells House, a Hagerstown nonprofit group that helps men fight drug addiction, picks up spare food from Food Lion every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Executive Director Charles Mooneyhan said.
Wells House usually picks up about 50 to 60 pounds worth of food at a time, including ham, boneless chicken breasts and other meat products the halfway house might not ordinarily get, he said.
"If we had to buy it, (the cost) would be out of sight," Mooneyhan said.
Food Lion encourages all of its stores to work with local food banks, company spokesman Jeff Lowrance said.
Ed Kennedy of Bethel Assembly of God Church in Hagerstown said three Food Lion branches in Washington County contribute pastries and bread to the church food pantry three times a week.
The church gets bread on its expiration date, but it's good for another two or three days, Kennedy said.
The same goes for day-old produce that Mount Hope Prison Ministry in Hagerstown gets from the Food Lion branch on Wilson Boulevard, Assistant Director Wanda Singleton said.
"We could get 50 pounds" she said. "We could get 300 pounds."
Each time, the donation is a surprise bonanza.
Bananas, potatoes, apples and oranges are commonly part of the packages. Sometimes, there are more "exotic" items, such as plantains and habaneros, Singleton said.
Mooneyhan said that when he worked in Baltimore, businesses - including caterers - were generous with their leftovers. "My guys would eat steaks and crabcakes, things that I wouldn't even eat at home," he said.
Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest - The Nation's Food Bank Network, said grocery stores commonly donate excess food.
America's Second Harvest-The Nation's Food Bank Network, which is based in Chicago, is an umbrella organization that helps 215 local food banks with logistics.
On the other hand, Mooneyhan said some large businesses that handle food seem reluctant to contribute. "They're probably afraid of lawsuits," he said.
Actually, a 1996 federal law protects donors and benefactors that handle leftover food given to charity.
Those involved "shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product" when the "ultimate distribution (is) to needy individuals," the law says.
What Wells House can't use right away, it freezes and uses later.
The Hagerstown Rescue Mission does the same with food that Red Lobster started donating about four weeks ago.
In addition, the mission gets breakfast and baked goods from Martin's Food Markets, plus leftover food from Pizza Hut and KFC, said Becky Shank, the mission's director of development.
The mission serves four meals a day to its residents and to people just passing through. It appreciates the help, she said.
"It's a major, major expense for us to put food on the table," Shank said.
Before giving food to the Hagerstown Rescue Mission, the Red Lobster on Wesel Boulevard in Halfway will "cook it, cool it, freeze it," then label it, General Manager Theresa Cooper said.
She estimated the contribution at five or 10 pounds of food a day. The mission picks up food once a week.
Fraser said there is more urgency when food is spoilable, which makes it tougher to donate.
"Food banks tend to move food that has not been prepared," he said. "Food rescue (groups get prepared) food that would otherwise go to waste. It has to be moved very, very quickly."
Prepared food can be given away if it meets certain health standards.
It must reach a certain temperature when it's cooked and it must be refrigerated or frozen within a certain time as it cools.
The potential for prepared food spoiling makes it easier to recover, for example, a pastry than a sandwich with mayonnaise, which must be refrigerated, Fraser said.
He said one grocery chain is trying a rescue program so unused dairy products can be donated quickly to community groups.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service found that about 96 billion pounds of food - 27 percent of what was available for human consumption - were wasted at the retail, consumer and service levels in 1995.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, grain products and sweeteners accounted for two-thirds of the waste, the study reported, according to information in a USDA news release.
Recovering 5 percent of the 96 billion pounds would represent a day's food for 4 million people and a savings of about $50 million in solid waste landfill costs, according to the USDA.