Bill limiting liability for food donations to nonprofit organizations is signed into law on March 26, 1979.

  • By Cynthia Nims
  • Posted 5/19/2022
  • Essay 22484
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On March 26, 1979, Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) signs into law a bill titled "Food Donation Program -- Legal Immunity." The new statute allows for donation of food for use by a nonprofit without concern of liability on the part of the donor, thus opening new avenues of larger-volume donations. The essence of this law will be found in elements of future laws that relate to efforts to limit food waste and, more recently, efforts to help reduce emissions from landfills.

Empty Shelves

The early 1970s saw a system of food banks in King County taking shape, instigated by the infamous "Boeing Bust" that began in 1969. A network of food banks formed with an expectation that it would be a short-term effort to meet the temporary needs of those reeling from deep job cuts at the region's largest employer. As Boeing's troubles waned, those of residents facing food insecurity did not. Demand frequently outpaced supply, due to a number of challenges on both sides of the equation. 

The will was strong across King County to help provide food relief in the early days of food banks, but the ability to keep shelves well stocked was challenging. In August 1973, the Neighbors in Need network of food banks was "barely alive." An example of what families were given at the time: "orange drink, sugar, cheese food, cucumbers, apples, tomatoes and bread" ("Food-Bank Project ..."). Patrons might find no food available on some occasions.

December 1978 was another particularly grim time for food banks, with supplies distressingly low just before the holidays. Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), after visiting an empty food bank, "called on businesses, civic groups and 'the public' to make donations of food and money" ("City Food Banks …"). Myriad factors kept the demand for food high and there was little reason to think that the upward trend would reverse. Avenues to secure increased supplies of food on a regular basis seemed limited.

Wasted Food

Coupled with the difficulty meeting increased demand at food banks was a growing understanding that edible food was going to waste. Grocers, food processors, and others in the regional food system often had overages they couldn't sell, or products only mildly blemished but still healthy and safe to eat. This food often was simply discarded.

One Seattle resident, Victor Lygdman, was particularly dismayed by this situation and sought to connect edible food with those who needed it the most, before it made its way to a dumpster. Lygdman, head of the Wallingford Volunteer Food Committee, along with volunteers, collected salvageable food from grocery stores -- the Wallingford Food Giant, in particular -- and distributed it to as many as two dozen individuals and nonprofit organizations.

To drive home the point of potential for redirecting food in this way, the Wallingford Volunteer Food Committee sponsored a luncheon in late 1978 in support of what had been dubbed the "Good Samaritan food bill." Attendees, who included legislators and community leaders, were shown the kinds of foods collected from donor grocery stores, some of which then was prepared as a salad to be served for lunch. The purpose was "to demonstrate that tons of good food are being turned into garbage rather than given to needy Seattle people" as a means of supporting the idea of the proposed bill that "would remove any liability for donations of food to charity" ("Luncheon to Demonstrate ...").

Making Way for Food Donations

The text of the 1979 bill -- Engrossed Senate Bill No. 2147, titled "Food Donation Program -- Legal Immunity" -- was succinct. Its primary intent was covered by this portion of Section 1: "A person, including a farmer, processor, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer of food, who in good faith donates an item of food for use or distribution by a nonprofit organization shall not be liable for civil damages or criminal penalties resulting from the nature, age, condition or packaging of the donated food, including any liability under this chapter or chapter 15.32 RCW" ("1979 Session Laws").

It was estimated that "as much as three tons of edible food a month could be donated to hunger programs, food which was not saleable for a variety of reasons" ("New Program Receives ...").

The Food Oversight-Operation Distribution (FOOD) organization (precursor to Food Lifeline) was founded in the fall of 1979. This was inspired, in part, by realization that more foods banks weren't necessarily needed; instead, better systems to solicit and distribute donations could significantly help food banks. Passage of the 1979 law bolstered opportunity for larger-volume donations. But few, if any, food banks would be able to receive those donations directly, lacking space for storage, among other limitations. As FOOD's director explained in 1980, "Take the hundreds of pounds of potatoes, the 300 pounds of hot dogs, or the 25 cases of fresh pears we've been given recently. No single food bank could handle such donations." They receive and store such donations, which "gives us the time and the latitude to distribute the foods where they are most needed" ("FOOD -- a New Force ..."). Also established around that time to help solicit donations for distribution to food banks was Northwest Second Harvest, which later became Northwest Harvest.

Food Donation in Future Laws

The brief text of the 1979 bill, signed into law by Governor Dixy Lee Ray on March 26, set the stage for nonprofit organizations such as food banks to receive donations from a range of food-related businesses. In 1983, a new law repealed most of the 1979 law. Among the new content was a definition of the law's purpose -- "to promote the free distribution of food to needy persons, prevent waste of food products, and provide liability protection for persons and organizations donating or distributing such food products" ("1983 Session Laws). Other additional provisions in this law included the Department of Agriculture maintaining "an information and referral service for persons and organizations that have notified the department of their desire to participate in the food donation program" ("1983 Session Laws"). Still today, the Revised Code of Washington, Chapter 69.80 "Food Donation and Distribution -- Liability" includes elements dating to 1983.

In 1994, the state legislature addressed welfare-system reform in one of the session's bills. The prime intent, as noted in the bill's first section, had more to do with vocational training and family planning assistance than addressing food insecurity. Tucked in at the end of the bill's content, however, is an amendment to the 1983 law, primarily focused on definitions of terms used in the previous legislation. Of note, this text states that the section "may be cited as the 'Good Samaritan Food Donation Act'" ("1994 Session Laws"), formalizing nomenclature used previously.

The 2022 legislative session included passage of Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1799, titled "Organic Materials -- Various Provisions." Section 1 cites that "the legislature finds that landfills are a significant source of emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas" with a number of emissions-reducing goals. Among the means listed for supporting those goals is "reducing legal liability risk barriers to the donation of edible food in order to encourage the recovery of foods that might otherwise be landfilled" ("Certificate of Enrollment ...").


Ray Ruppert, "Food-Bank Project Now Barely Alive," The Seattle Times, August 19, 1973, p. A-4; "Luncheon to Demonstrate Waste of Food," Ibid., November 26, 1978, p. A-7; George Foster, "City Food Banks Bare Days Before Christmas," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 14, 1978, p. A-8; Evelyn Iritani, "Throwaway Food: A Dilemma for the Stores," Ibid., January 7, 1979, p. C-4; Ray Ruppert, "New Program Receives Ton of Food for Hungry," The Seattle Times, March 10, 1979, p. A-8; Charles Dunsire, "Hunger Stalks in Seattle Where Many Do Without," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 1, 1979, p. A-21; Lettie Gavin, "FOOD – A New Force Wages War Against Hunger," Ibid., November 23, 1980, p. B-5; Revised Code of Washington website, accessed May 18, 2022 (; 1979 Session Laws of the State of Washington, Chapter 115, pp. 450-51; 1983 Session Laws of the State of Washington, Chapter 241, pp. 1260-61; 1994 Session Laws of the State of Washington, Chapter 299, pp. 1914-16; Certification of Enrollment, Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1799, Chapter 180, Laws of 2022, 67th Legislature, 2022 Regular Session, pp. 2, 14-17 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Boeing Bust (1969-1971)" (by Alan J. Stein), (accessed May 18, 2022).

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