Cafeteria Workers Win The Right To Eat Expired Food For Free

Want to eat expired food? Sure, go ahead. But a new settlement in Pennsylvania says one school district can’t charge union workers for food that has been deemed unacceptable to serve to students.

The Herald in Sharon, Pa. reports that cafeteria workers have come out victorious in the Sharpsville Area School District. In 2011, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed a grievance that said they didn’t want to have pay for food or drinks that couldn’t be sold to or consumed by students.

The grievance was based on the allegation that the school district “violated established past practice” in charging cafeteria workers for food or drinks that couldn’t be sold or consumed by students. These items would include food or drinks with expired dates or foods that had been reheated, none of which can be served to students according to safe food regulations.

The school board unanimously approved a settlement that says those cafeteria employees can eat the expired or reheated items, but at their own risk. That food cannot then be given or sold to any other party, says the agreement.

As for other, non-expired food, AFSCME members working in the cafeteria will have to pay up, just like everyone else.

Free food that might get you sick or paying for a meal? I’m pretty sure I’d take the risk, or at least would like the right to do so.

Union, board settle beef over eats [The Herald]


Edit Your Comment

  1. kaptainkk says:

    Expired food does not equate to unsafe food, isn’t this common knowledge?

    • homehome says:

      some expired food I wouldn’t dare touch (ex. ground beef and dairy) even if it still looked and smelled okay. I’ve done that before and had a vicious case of food poisoning, not going through that again.

      • chefboyardee says:

        that’s not really great logic. there are plenty of non-expired foods that have caused serious bouts of food poisoning (see: spinach). if you’re an otherwise healthy person (not an infant, elderly, or compromised immune system), in most cases the sniff/touch test is as safe with expired food as with non-expired food, assuming you’re storing and cooking your food properly.

        if you research how they come up with expiration dates (and keep in mind, expiration dates and sell by dates and best before dates are three completely different things) you’ll see that it’s kind of ridiculous how they set them.

        for example, milk in our fridge lasts, easily, 1 month beyond the expiration date before it even begins to consider smelling bad.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I think the problem is, all food does pose some kind of risk, whether it’s expired or not. But when it comes to liability, it creates a situation where the food provider isn’t doing their due diligence by knowingly providing expired food.

      • RandomHookup says:

        My guess is that most of this is about leftovers. If they can be re-reheated, then let the staff eat it. I generally trust people who work in a kitchen to not eat food that is obviously spoiled (though there is a risk in everything you eat).

        • RandomHookup says:

          Sorry… I mean “can’t be re-reheated”.

        • Psychicsword says:

          The problem with letting them eat left overs is why wouldn’t the workers just consistently make too much food for the students to finish off so they can get a free meal? This system can be easily abused.

          • regis-s says:

            That would be why you have management or at least supervisors. You should be able to trust them to ensure employees aren’t blatantly preparing too much food.

    • makoto says:

      How about re-heated food does not equate to expired food? They are two totally different things! I’m also a bit confused how it can be legal to allow employees to consume actually EXPIRED items due to health code violations in general. Re-heating extra food for themselves or taking something home that is a left over seems safe enough.

      • pamelad says:

        Re-heating is generally safe enough, given that the food was fresh, that there was no contamination or cross-contamination, and that it was handled properly for storage. In general (depending on the room temperature and type of food), cooked food should be left out no more than one to two hours, refrigerated or frozen promptly, and re-heated in a timely manner to at least a simmering temperature.

  2. [censored] says:

    Expired is pretty subjective here. Nothing wrong with ‘reheated’ food.

    • who? says:

      Depends on how long it’s been “in the danger zone,” to quote Alton Brown.

    • Bladerunner says:

      Expiration and reheating are two separate issues:

      “These items would include food or drinks with expired dates or foods that had been reheated, none of which can be served to students according to safe food regulations.” (emphasis mine)

    • Here to ruin your groove says:

      Depends what you mean by reheated food.
      Food is cooked then stored cold for prep (think sauces, precooked meats, soups, etc).
      Food is then reheated prior to being served.
      When you get to the point of re-reheating food, be prepared for your chance of food poisoning increasing. Yay bacteria.

  3. Cat says:

    OMG! The expire date on this cheese I just ate is 6/11/2012! I”M GOING TO DIE!

    Food doesn’t instantly turn “bad” on the expire date, MB.

    • lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

      Dear Cat, please tell my Mom this is the case. She is convinced when sealed cheese items reach the “sell by date” that they turn toxic, so she gives them to me. Not sure what to make of the underlying psychology there.

      I once said “so you won’t eat this, because it’s not fit to eat, but you’ll give it to me to eat?”. I got the Mom nasty look and took the cheese.


    • Blueskylaw says:

      Cat, you’re not going to die – you have until 11:59:59
      today to safely eat the cheese. After that you will die.

  4. OutPastPluto says:

    This isn’t about the validity of expiration dates. It’s about the idea that you should or can charge employees to dispose of food that cannot be sold to the customer.

    Don’t be a Krabs.

    • bonzombiekitty says:

      I can understand the business rationale behind it though. If they can eat expired food or food that cannot be otherwise served to the general public, that gives incentive to the workers to make/order too much food.

      When I used to work at a supermarket, we’d have to throw away a TON of expired bakery items every night. Couldn’t bring it home even though they were still perfectly good because management figured we’d be more likely to purposely make too many donuts.

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        At my crappy teenager job, we’d just “drop” food in order to justify the loss of inventory. While we typically got lunch or dinner at half price, dropped food was free.

        • weathergirl says:

          We used to do this with cookies at my fast food job in high school. Or we’d “accidentally” break them when we took them out of the oven and they were super soft, because “no one would buy a broken cookie”.

      • sixsevenco says:

        This was my first thought upon reading this article.

        There’s also a question of fairness. Creating fairness also creates additional problems. How will the cafeteria workers decide how the food is distributed? Why are cafeteria workers special? Shouldn’t janitors, teachers, and other workers be allowed access to the food? It seems to me that the district would need to create additional processes to address these questions. These processes have costs.

  5. jsweitz says:

    So now employees can order too much food, or hold back from serving the “good stuff” and take it home with them when it “expires”????

    • wade says:

      That’s along the lines of what I thought when I first read this story. I would imagine that the original “established past practice” of letting the cafeteria workers have the expired food and drinks for free was abused by someone responsible for ordering or product rotation, and so the district tried to put a stop to it.

      That’s why you can never do anything nice for anybody.

      • Kavatar says:

        I would rather benefit the honest people and deal with a few abusers than just start throwing things away and having nobody benefit.

        • eeelaine says:

          It always makes me wonder why people go straight to the “but we can’t do this because SOMEONE will ABUSE the system” argument when it just makes it so transparent that they would likely be the first to abuse the system, given the chance.

          Also known as the “he who smelt it” and “this is why we can’t have nice things” rule

    • ferozadh says:

      These are school cafeterias…There’s very little meat in these gym mats!

    • Bativac says:

      When I was in college and less noble than I am now, we used to do exactly this – we’d stash a case of potato chips or candy bars or something, and once it expired, it would be “disposed of” (AKA distributed to our friends in the dorms).

      Yeah it makes me feel like a shiftless scummy college kid, but in my defense, that’s exactly what I WAS.

  6. SkokieGuy says:

    Selling expired food is illegal, so the union had to file a grievance to stop the board from doing this? Where is common sense?

    • frank64 says:

      I think most of it was probably prepared food that wasn’t sold by the end of business hours. Then the food wasn’t really expired. To me it seems more like a price dispute, which means it shouldn’t have gone to court, the employees should just not have bought it.

    • [censored] says:

      (Note: I am in Canada) I see grocery stores sell expired food, usually on clearance or high discount, but I dont think it is Illegal here.

      • mbz32190 says:

        It isn’t really illegal in the U.S. either, but I have never seen items past their date (purposely) being sold at a discount at a major grocery store. They just don’t want to take any sort of risk. I worked for a large, upscale grocery chain that claimed to donate all their damaged/expired food. In reality, the only things that got “donated” (who knows if they actually were, or if they were sold to an outlet store) were dented cans, torn boxes, and that sort of stuff. Once in a while, someone would come by and pick up the day-old baked goods, but that usually did not happen. Meat that was one day past the date, produce that was bruised, and unsold prepared food all went into the trash at the end of the day. Could the employees even take it? Nope (although I used to scavenge around all the time, when I could).

        The only places you really see expired food are “grocery outlet” and dollar-type stores, but there really isn’t too many of them around here. Even then, they don’t seem to stock many “fresh” products that are past the sell-by date.

    • az123 says:

      Well “Re-heated” is a pretty wide term and basically means anything they don’t sell during lunch hour needs to get tossed. So technically the food may still meet the state health laws to sell but sounds like the schools have a higher standard

    • wade says:

      I would imagine that it is only illegal to sell expired food to the students. As others have pointed out here, expired does not necessarily mean unsafe, but I can understand a state having such a law to keep school meals safe(r) by eliminating the subjective portion of food safety.

      The issue isn’t that the union has a beef with the school illegally selling expired food, the grievance is because the school started making AFSCME members pay for the expired food that the school wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell, in violation of “established past practice.” I’m sure that the AFSCME members were never unable to purchase unexpired food; they just got upset because the free food came to an end.

  7. mavrick67 says:

    How long until the good stuff is being hidden in the back of the fridge until it’s a day or 2 past the expiration date?

    • Cat says:

      Nobody’s hiding the Lobster Thermidor with Truffles and Prime Rib at the back of the fridge here.

      It’s a public school cafeteria.

      • wade says:

        I dunno, those rectangular pizzas are pretty tasty. . .oh look, here’s a case that just expired yesterday, sitting in the back of the fridge. I guess I’ll just have to take these home in time for my buddies to come over and watch the game this weekend!

        • Bladerunner says:

          From the Article:
          “That food cannot then be given or sold to any other party, says the agreement.”

          • Auron says:

            It doesn’t say that the employees who bring the food home can’t share it with family/friends. Kinda like the FBI warnings on movies, you can’t do a public showing of them if you aren’t a theater, but you can have friends/family watch it with you.

          • wade says:

            Well then, clearly nobody would ever do such a thing. Especially not in their own home, away from public scrutiny.

            “Hey, boss, I found this case of french fries way in the back of the freezer, and it expired yesterday. I’m gonna take it home so I can eat them while I watch the big game!”

            “Well, don’t forget that you can’t give any of those fries to anyone else.”

            “Don’t worry, boss; I’ll buy a separate bag of fries at the supermarket for everyone else to eat!”

            Wink, wink.

      • RandomHookup says:

        But what about lima beans?

  8. Bladerunner says:

    I’m sure that making too much food/purposefully hiding food so that it expires is a separate disciplinary issue; this is just about, when it expires (and there will always be expired food, there’s no way they can plan that perfectly), should the employer suddenly start being a dick about letting someone eat it rather than throw it out.

  9. AlexPDL says:

    Here is a simple solution — They should donate it to a food bank and the school board could then take the tax deduction for the in-kind donation of goods. Yes, food banks receive expired food all the time. Having volunteered at a large urban bank for years…I know we get expired food and then have a series of adjustments that are made on the expirations. Like someone said — just because its a day past the expeiration does not mean it is not good. Doonating it would be a win-win for the school and the food bank.

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      two food banks in my area will not take expired items. perhaps the food banks pennsylvania also won’t

    • ScandalMgr says:

      Not a problem to donate to the foodbank: some of the schoolkids would just eat it a few days later, then.

    • RandomHookup says:

      And how much in taxes does a school board pay that it needs deductions? I’m guessing this isn’t a for-profit operation.

      • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

        Our school cafeteria operated on a profit. So does the after school program at my daughter’s school.

        • drjayphd says:

          Same at the school district that I cover. The food service program was pretty much the only thing about the school system that people weren’t trying to rip to shreds.

        • Bsamm09 says:

          I think the cafeterias are exempt from unrelated business taxable income (UBTI).

    • RvLeshrac says:

      No legitimate food bank *ANYWHERE* will accept expired food items or prepared foods.

      • RandomHookup says:

        Actually depends on your definition of “expired”. The Greater Boston Food Bank will accept a number of non-perishable food items that are up to 1 year past their “use by” or expiration date.

  10. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Some of that food may be not suitable for consumption based on “sell by” or “best by” dates, which in no way indicate the safety of the food.

    It’s still a rather unusual situation.

  11. mikedt says:

    Back during college, my roommate got fired from the school cafeteria for eating food off a tray of food he was told to scrape off into the garbage. I’m sure similar rules exist in similar institutions and people were getting fired for eat stuff that was about to be tossed. It makes little sense on so many levels.

  12. ScandalMgr says:

    This is either a plot by management to poison the workers, or a plot by workers to hide food so that they eat for free.

  13. Scoobatz says:

    Approving a settlement to eat expired foods for free? Claiming victory for living rent free in a loft that has no gas and major safety problems? What’s up with these articles today?

    I guess I have higher standards for myself.

  14. Jawaka says:

    The workers are just looking for a free lunch here. Either the food is consumable or it isn’t. If the food was determined to be unsellable then nobody should be eating it and it should be disposed of. If the workers want something then they can pay for it but I don’t see their entitlement to free food.

    • Bladerunner says:

      The issue here is that they were given the food which, while edible, cannot be done commercially due to regs (which are there because “looks good to me” isn’t an appropriate regulation.), then the company tried to take that back without bargaining.

    • benminer says:

      Some would consider that a de minimis benefit. No different than an office working taking home 3-ring binders that are about to be thrown out. On another level, one could argue that in a world of scarcity it is inefficient or even morally wrong to knowingly allow waste when it is reasonably preventable. Isn’t it better for the environment to eat the food vs. throwing it out and wasting all the energy that went into making it? (fuel, fertilizer, grain, electricity, etc.)

      • Jawaka says:

        But it wasn’t a benefit. And taking three ring binders from your work can be considered theft even if they were going to be thrown away otherwise.

        • Bladerunner says:

          1, yes, it is. It’s also known as “past practice”, when an employer has some benefit to employees in place for a prolonged period of time. Often, they must bargain if they suddenly want to take that away.

          2, while you’re correct that it could be considered “theft” by some places, you are only correct until it is, in fact, thrown away. Then it’s up for grabs. And more to the point, it was a hypothetical situation, an analogy benminer was using. His hypothetical scenario was one in which it was acceptable.

        • Bladerunner says:

          1, yes, it is. It’s also known as “past practice”, when an employer has some benefit to employees in place for a prolonged period of time. Often, they must bargain if they suddenly want to take that away.

          2, while you’re correct that it could be considered “theft” by some places, you are only correct until it is, in fact, thrown away. Then it’s up for grabs. And more to the point, it was a hypothetical situation, an analogy benminer was using. His hypothetical scenario was one in which it was acceptable.

  15. Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

    There’s some milk in the fridge that’s about to go bad… and there it goes.

  16. benminer says:

    The argument for not permitting employees to eat food that is about to be disposed of is that allowing them to do so will encourage them to make more then is needed. However if the workers are not making the decsions on how much food to make on any given day then this is moot.

  17. humphrmi says:

    Wow, this has taken a long time. I remember in the ’80’s, when I was 17 or 18, working at a 7-11, we got to eat all the expired food and by company policy it was free. That was the way I survived for some of those lean years.

  18. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    I wonder if the school district could create a policy that donates leftovers to a homeless shelter. We have some store delis here that do that. Or, they could have a strict policy that all leftover food is to be composted or thrown away if they really don’t want people to eat it. While they can’t charge for it, they certainly don’t have to let them have it for free if they decided to make the policy so that they must do something else with it.

    I have no issue with cafeteria employees eating for free. They are paid very little and have to put up with bratty kids. It seems like a good fringe benefit to offer that would cost the district little to nothing.

  19. Carlee says:

    I side with the cafeteria workers. It’s like when we have a meeting or event at work and there’s leftovers. Food banks won’t take food which has been sitting out for longer than 3 hours. And we’re not going to waste food by just tossing it out. Bagels can sit out for a day and not cause any harm. Heck, even sealed yogurt cups are still good after sitting out for a few hours (it gets watery, but it’s still edible).

    We usually leave it out for the staff to eat, but in reality, anyone who passes through (faculty, college students, maintenance workers, janitors, desk clerks) can take some. I guess there is a liability issue if someone gets sick but the foods that might spoil more easily (meat dishes, etc) are usually snatched up within an hour of serving.

    For fairness, it would be good if all school employees (not just cafeteria workers) should be able to eat this food. But since they aren’t cleaning it up and are presumably doing work elsewhere (like teaching class after lunch), it wouldn’t be practical for everyone to get equal access.

    As for what if workers order/make more food than necessary just so they can take it home – it’s up to supervisors to ensure that doesn’t happen. More work for them, maybe, but it’s a risk they’d run into anyway.

  20. bwcbwc says:

    Hmm, I can see why the case was settled this way, but this situation has “unintended consequences” just oozing out of it. How soon will we hear of cases of workers hiding food so that it will expire unused.

  21. bruce9432 says:

    Public employee unions are a pus filled chancre, a cancer and should be made illegal.