Susan Powell and her fellow Delta Air Lines flight attendants always thought it was a shame to throw away perfectly good food untouched by airline passengers.

But early in her career, when Powell inquired about recycling unopened food containers and fruit served aboard Delta flights, she was told by the carrier's legal department the food could not be reused for liability reasons.

Years later, in 1996, Powell was on a layover when she saw a TV news report that spurred her to action and led to the creation of a Delta food-recycling program that now donates food to agencies in 25 cities, including the Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City.

"I saw President Clinton signing legislation, the Good Samaritan statute, exempting corporations from liability, and I thought, 'OK, this is exactly what we need,' " Powell said.

She spent the next year working with Delta executives and the airline's legal department to develop the program, which was initially launched on a trial basis in 1997. When it became a permanent program, Salt Lake City was one of the 11 cities included.

"If everybody gives a little bit, it's amazing what we can do," said Rod Miller, development director for the Utah Food Bank. "Everyone doing his little part makes a difference, and Delta is doing that."

A check with other airlines found various types of recycling programs in operation but no others that involve food.

The Delta program is voluntary, and it is up to individual flight attendants to decide if they want to participate on a given flight. All it takes, Powell said, is one flight attendant who is willing to make a public address announcement aboard the aircraft after meals are served and then collect the food.

After the flight, the attendant simply deposits the food in a bin specifically designated for the program. Delta's catering department takes over from there, storing the food until a local agency can pick it up.

"Every flight attendant won't participate. Every household doesn't recycle. But it takes very little time. . . . It goes to someone who can really use it and it doesn't go into a landfill," Powell said. "It hurts my feelings for flight attendants not to do it, but they all have their own (priorities), and this is my cause."

Kevin Christensen, coordinator of catering operations for Delta's Salt Lake hub, said the airline provides about 450 pounds of food to the Utah Food Bank each week.

"The Delta flight attendants do a great job. They're the ones who accumulate this stuff on the airplane, bag it up and get it ready for catering to pick it up," Christensen said. "They're very conscientious."

Angela Torres, director of service for the Utah Food Bank, said the type of food donated by Delta is different from the usual canned-food fare.

Torres said she'd like to see other airlines initiate a similar program. Powell said she'd like to see more flight attendants at Delta participate and increase the amount of food being donated each year.

Powell just completed another volunteer project, the Share the Warmth program, in which hundreds of flight attendants donated jackets and other items from their recently retired Delta uniforms to people in need.