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Get a grip on food waste

SHAPE November 2017

Food waste reduction addresses sustainability, food cost issues.

One of the pivotal challenges facing society today is the problem of how to reduce the massive amount of food waste being sent to our landfills.

The USDA estimates the country's food waste accounts for between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply — or approximately 133 billion pounds of food from stores, restaurants and homes annually. Meanwhile, between 4 and 10 percent of all food purchased by foodservice operators is discarded before it ever reaches the guests, says LeanPath, a food-waste prevention company.

ReFED, another company focused on food-waste reduction, says U.S. restaurants generate 11.4 million tons of food waste annually.

“Over the last couple of years we've seen an increased interest in food-waste reduction by the media, customers and restaurateurs,” says Laura Abshire, director of sustainability for the National Restaurant Association, which encourages operators to implement food-waste reduction programs. “The concept of food waste resonates with people interested in sustainability.”

Increasingly, it resonates with chefs. According to the NRA's What's Hot 2017 Culinary Forecast, which polled nearly 1,300 professional chefs, food-waste reduction ranks No. 7 among the Top 10 Concept Trends.

Food waste, the largest component of municipal landfills, generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas which has a much stronger effect than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Chefs and restaurateurs are not just voicing concerns about food waste as an environmental problem, either. It also contributes to the rising cost of doing business for many operators, says Matthew Britt, chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. “With costs rising, food waste is having an impact on the bottom line.”

For operators looking to reduce food waste, the NRA's Abshire outlines five fundamental actions they can take:

• Choose a champion. For starters, Abshire recommends that operators identify a staff member who is enthusiastic about implementing a food-waste reduction program and has the ability to inspire others on the staff to participate. Getting the staff involved in the program will help encourage them to make waste reduction part of the daily routine. Once employees comprehend the plan, waste-reduction practice will become part of the operation's way of doing business and will continue even after staffers have left and been replaced by others.

• Measure and manage your waste. Next, Abshire advises operators to track, measure and manage what their restaurant throws out each day and the reasons behind it. Measuring food waste is an excellent way of informing a restaurant why it is occurring and will help to identify reduction solutions. A restaurant can track waste in several ways, such as employing paper waste logs or electronic versions like the EPA's automated tracking system. Vendors also offer mobile tracing and reporting software that can be installed on a tablet.

• Do good by donating. An increasing number of restaurateurs are reducing food waste by donating leftover food to the needy. Abshire maintains that establishing a donation program will help to cut down on the amount of waste, aid the community and improve the environment. Operators who donate food should be careful to follow food-safety guidelines, she advises — package and store the donated food correctly, and be sure to track what you're donating so that you can receive tax benefits later. If you need direction when it comes to donating food, contact a rescue organization or food bank in your community.

• Consider composting. Composting can be a great way of diverting food waste from landfills and transforming it into a fertilizer that can be used by local farms. Abshire recommends that operators start their composting program by contacting a composter in their area. Following that, they should engage with local haulers who have the ability to transport food waste. Finally, purchase compost bins, provide signage and educate your employees to sort and place the proper items in the compost, recycle and trash bins. Also, the NRA advises, make certain all fats, oils and grease are recycled properly.

• Put the customer first. Keep the customer in mind when developing a food-waste reduction program. Abshire advises chefs and restaurateurs to monitor the food that comes back on the plate from the customers' tables, allowing for the evaluation of portion sizes. By doing that, she explains, restaurants can make the necessary changes in the amounts of food they're serving and cut down on plate waste. Some operators offer half portions or small plates which give guests more options, reduce waste and save on costs. Also, be sure to offer to-go containers to customers who might want to take leftovers home.

Johnson & Wales' Britt also offers guidance on cutting back on food waste:

• Use the entire product. Develop a menu structured around whole vegetable or whole animal cookery. Plan to use everything, Britt advises. For example, kale is trendy now, but most kitchens toss away the stem and other trimmings. Instead, find a use for them, like transforming them into a pesto. Or, in another example, he recommends chefs save the ends of cucumbers and turn them into house-made pickles — which are also on-trend today. In some cases, a particular food item can even be recycled into a non-menu item — like mixing rendered bacon fat with paraffin wax to make candles for the dining room tables --- and don't forget to scrape the jar or the bowl, he says.

“We have to educate restaurateurs to not throw so much out,” Britt says. “We need to be good corporate citizens.”

Meanwhile, research firm Datassential forecasts that attention to food-waste reduction will only increase in the future. “Look for major brands to begin offering more no-waste or low-waste foods and products in the years ahead — and to celebrate the fact,” the research firm says in its FoodBytes: 2017 Trends to Watch. “Every segment will begin getting into the no-waste game, including colleges, hospitals, hotels and B&I.”

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