As Tucson food banks and shelters do brisk business through the holidays, some restaurants are doing their best to make sure nothing goes to waste if there are mouths to feed.

More than 30 Tucson restaurants participate in the Food Donation Connection, a nationwide program that helps eateries get surplus food - which would otherwise be thrown away - to nearby charities.

Even on a busy day, some food is always left over, said David Thomas, general manager at the Olive Garden, 1213 W. Irvington Road.

"It's anywhere from several entrees to some pounds of soup or something like that," said Thomas, who estimates that his Olive Garden donates about 50 pounds of food per week.

Even the most efficient restaurant has to throw away about 6 percent of untouched, unused food at the end of the night, said Bill Reighard, president of Tennessee-based Food Donation Connection.

Reighard, a former Pizza Hut executive, said he never liked to see food thrown away during his days in the restaurant industry.

"I'm a clean-plate kind of guy, and it always frustrated me," he said. "I moved from food selling to food saving."

He left Pizza Hut to start Food Donation Connection in 1992.

The network's slogan, "Let Nothing Be Wasted," comes from a passage in the Gospel of John when Jesus Christ miraculously feeds 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Jesus implored his disciples to "Let nothing be wasted" and the leftovers from the meal filled 12 baskets.

Restaurant donations don't take a miracle, but it's not as simple as dropping off a to-go box, either. Restaurants have to meet specific health and safety requirements.

Restaurants often want to donate but are leery about taking on liability. That's where Reighard comes in. His organization serves as a facilitator between donors and recipients, building connections between restaurants and charities, training staff to cool and freeze leftover food, and setting up prompt pickup and delivery times.

Often, it's a matter of saving relatively small amounts of leftover food, said Jim Larson, program development director for the Food Donation Connection.

"A lot of restaurants say, 'We don't have a surplus,' just very small quantities (of leftovers), but those are the quantities that can make a big difference to a shelter," Larson said.

The leftovers do go a long way, said Kelly Edwards, who runs the men's shelter kitchen for Gospel Rescue Mission in Tucson.

"It's totally beneficial to us," she said. "Our numbers are always increasing."

The Gospel Rescue Mission has received about 35,000 pounds of food through Food Donation Connection this year, Reighard said.

About 118,000 pounds of food were donated to shelters throughout Tucson through the program this year, he said.

And the leftovers aren't just served as-is. Some items, mashed potatoes from KFC, for example, can be incorporated into other dishes, such as shepherd's pies.

"It's fun to take those ingredients and change it up," Edwards said.

Contact reporter Alex Dalenberg at adalenberg@azstarnet.com or 807-8429.