Waste Not, Warm Not: Cutting Dining Hall Scraps

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What if each of us went to the store, bought two bags of groceries, and immediately discarded one? In a sense, that's what happens every day. There are no reliable estimates of how much food is wasted in the U.S. from field to plate, but the most educated guesses range between 40 and 50 percent.

Food waste has significant environmental, economic, and humanitarian consequences—not to mention a food lover's genuine disappointment when seeing a forgotten basket of once-beautiful berries in the back of a refrigerator. It is a subject worth more serious attention than it generally gets. But it's not simply a consumer awareness issue, as is often thought. Consumers are but a part of the equation.

Measure the waste in two identically staffed commercial kitchens that prepare 2,500 meals a day and the results could be radically different. If one chef cuts whole fruit, fillets fish, and uses shell eggs (versus using canned or pre-chopped produce, pre-battered fillets, and liquid/shelled eggs) the first kitchen will show more waste at the end of the day. The second chef's waste is simply occurring earlier in the supply chain.

For the second year in a row at Bon Appétit Management Company, we implemented a program to measure how much food is wasted in our cafés and to focus on reducing it. Part of our Low Carbon Diet Program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food service operations by 25 percent over five years, food waste is a big area of opportunity. One-third of all methane emissions in the U.S. emanate from landfills, where rotting food is a major culprit.

Our staff was reacquainted with food waste reduction strategies and required to measure wasted food and report it for 12 weeks. Here's what we learned:

1. Total waste was reduced by 30 percent from the 2009 baseline over two years.

2. 45 percent of kitchen waste (456 tons) and 40 percent of consumer waste (235 tons) was diverted from the landfills to off-site or on-site composting programs (many of them new since last year), and to be used as pig feed. Kitchen waste is "purer" than consumer waste and so more can be diverted for use by local farmers. Most won't take compostable cups made from corn.

3. Food rescue (sometimes called food recovery) is nearly nonexistent in food service. According to Jon Bloom, intrepid blogger of wastedfood.com (a thoroughly cool site for anyone interested in this topic), food rescue is "the practice of retrieving edible food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to those in need." Sounds reasonable, right? But in a college or corporate kitchen, there's almost nothing of sufficient quantity to be of interest to most food banks or community kitchens. Almost everything is bits of this and that if the chefs are doing their job right. Many college kitchens are also too far away from food banks for efficient delivery, and food banks rarely have enough temperature-controlled space to store prepared food.

4. How kitchens operate matters a lot. Our chefs practice "batch cooking," where small quantities are prepared according to how popular a menu item is. Uncooked food can be stored for the next meal. This practice isn't common in food service kitchens that more closely resemble assembly lines. Because local food safety regulations require that most uneaten cooked food has to be discarded, batch cooking minimizes wasted edible food.

5. Consumer waste depends on several factors: how much someone has taken (or been given) and what they like to eat. Denny Lawrence, general manager of George Fox University's dining program in Newburg, Oregon, told me that "consumer waste is almost entirely menu-driven. The better the students like the menu of the day, the less waste there is, and vice-versa. We get immediate feedback."

6. Many college campuses, including George Fox, have eliminated trays to make it harder for students to load up with multiple entrees, beverages, and desserts. When we pioneered this sort of program at St. Joseph's College of Maine in 2004, Bon Appétit General Manager Stuart Leckie found that the average food waste per student per meal initially dropped from five to three ounces. (Averages there and elsewhere are now generally two to three ounces of consumer waste per meal.) Bloom chronicled that program's success in 2007: "Without trays, students are realizing they're full before they've taken that second entree or first dessert. Because demand has decreased, the cafeteria is seeing less dessert waste and even making fewer desserts."

7. As appealing as the idea of "trayless" dining is, consumer waste is usually more a function of what the staff does. In all-you-care-to-eat programs, well-trained staffers serve portions in line with healthy eating. Hungrier students can come back for more, but satisfied students don't leave a lot on their plates.

If we've learned one big thing, it is that as a company we have to take responsibility for those aspects of the food system within our direct control. We can't change everything but we can be part of the effort for broader change. Our chefs routinely accept "cosmetically challenged" but deliciously ripe fruits to make jams and sauces, thus reaching back into the supply chain to rescue what would otherwise be discarded. But change will require many efforts on all levels, and we all have to figure out where our efforts can be meaningful.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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