Salt Lake City is like every other major American metropolitan area: It has homeless people scrounging for food while hotels, restaurants and caterers are throwing away scandalous amounts of wholesome, delicious, prepared food, much of it very expensive.

Some of the food is retrieved from dumpsters by the homeless, but at that point it resembles garbage more than edible food. As one Utah officials says, "We need to take the dumpster out of the distributing line for food."That is not as easy as it sounds. But in at least 40 cities across the country groups have organized to put leftovers to use in feeding the needy. Prepared food left at the end of the day is picked up at deli counters, banquets, restaurants and hotels and distributed to shelters, soup kitchens and similar programs.

Such a program does not presently exist in the Salt Lake area, although it has been tried in fits and starts. There are several reasons why leftover food isn't being put to better use in the city.

First of all, many potential donors are afraid of being sued if someone gets food poisoning from donated food. Yet there is almost no risk of that. All 50 states have so-called Good Samaritan laws that protect people who donate food in good faith. In Utah, that protection is very broad.

In fact, such protection around the nation is remarkable. In the 10 years since such laws were first adopted, starting with a handful of states, not one lawsuit has been filed anywhere.

Despite this impressive record, some restaurants, hotels and other food preparers flatly refuse to donate unused food, preferring to throw out leftover gourmet meals. This is probably because they are unaware of the extent of the Good Samaritan laws that would protect them.

Another reason may be that they don't want to be bothered. Once food is left over, it no longer has value to them and they don't want to fuss around with it. Turning it into garbage is easier.

To collect that food would require a small army of people who could pick up the leftovers on a rigid schedule so that it would be gotten out of the way. That also means trucks and other transportation, stainless steel containers to carry the food, and refrigeration or heating units as needed, plus temporary storage.

What this boils down to is organization and equipment. And that means money at a time when existing programs are hard-pressed. Still, almost anything would be better than simply throwing food away. Influential groups trying to help the needy should get together with potential donors to work out a system to use at least some of this food.

It also would help if the Health Department would draft some special rules that would recognize the special circumstances of charity work and make it easier to transport, store and give food to the homeless.