Wholesalers & Distributors

Building a New Mindset About Food Waste

Operators can make a difference between surviving or shutting their doors
Photograph: Shutterstock

Last summer, food management company Sodexo announced a lofty goal: It would cut its food waste in half by 2025.

One of the main ways it’s making that goal a reality is by slowly changing the way the company, which has U.S. headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., thinks about its day-to-day operations. “We’ve made food waste invisible because it’s been built into our systems. It’s built into our culinary training in a way that makes sense in certain aspects but maybe doesn’t in others,” says Nell Fry, senior manager of Sodexo’s Sustainability Office of Corporate Responsibility. “Display plates are a really good example of something where you're like, ‘Oh, this is worth doing; it’s marketing.’ But is it worth doing the way that we’re doing [it]?”

Confronted with a warming climate and mounting pressure from consumers, operators are looking for ways to rethink what they throw away in their kitchens today to make sure they’re still operating tomorrow.    

Waste Diners Don’t See 

Consumer education and awareness will play a large role in how the future of food waste evolves. Today, many consumers focus on the waste they can see firsthand. Single-use plastics have been under intense scrutiny by consumers, causing operations such as Bon Appetit Management Co. to ban them outright. Less attention, however, is being placed on the food waste that’s occurring in the back of house, outside of consumers’ sight.

A little more than half (52%) of college students say they would like their school to reduce plastic waste by eliminating single-use plastics such as straws and cups, while only 43% of college students say they would like their schools to reduce food waste by offering more dishes that use all parts of the ingredients, according to the 2019 College & University Consumer Trend Report from Chicago-based Technomic.

To bring more attention to food-specific waste, some in the foodservice industry are taking steps to bring consumers into the fold on what’s happening behind the scenes. Leanpath, a food-waste tracking company based in Beaverton, Ore., that measures waste by weight in real time, has been installing front-of-house digital signage at operations that use its software. The signage broadcasts to customers how much food has been wasted so far that day.

Educating guests isn’t all high-tech and data-driven, though. At Miller Union, an independent farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta, co-owner and Executive Chef  Steven Satterfield tries to educate the public about food waste and why they should care. Last year, he partnered with guest chefs to host a zero-waste dinner in celebration of Miller Union’s 10th anniversary; featured dishes incorporated ingredients that would normally be thrown away. Going forward, he plans to continue to host public events to drive awareness and education of the impact food waste has on the industry and the world.

Consumers and Legislation Are Driving Change 

Operational cost and ease are not necessarily the driving force behind waste-reduction efforts. How quickly consumers focus on what goes on in the back of the house will determine what the future of food waste looks like. If consumers keep pressuring companies to cut waste—whether it’s single-use plastics or actual food—they’ll be forced to come up with solutions.

“We’re already seeing this become an expectation,” says Fry, citing the attacks on single-use straws and cups. “Consumers are changing their behaviors and saying, ‘We don’t want to hear it—just do it.’ It’s going to become a baseline expectation. If it’s not legislated, consumers will demand it.”

Like the consumer mindset, current legislation also focuses on single-use plastics. A law in Vermont that will go into effect this summer bans retailers and restaurants from providing single-use carryout bags, straws and plastic stirrers, as well as cups, takeout or other food containers made from expanded polystyrene. California has also banned single-use straws and is looking to phase out single-use plastics by 2030. If the consumer mindset begins to shift toward eliminating food waste, regulations addressing how much food waste an operation produces could be next.

Fry also believes that, going forward, operators will have to look at what is going on beyond what they throw away.

“I think as you have climate change impacting our supply chains, it’s going to cause a lot of volatility in cost,” she says. “In 10 years, I think it’s not going to just be about food waste on-site. I think it’s going to be a much bigger picture than that. Food waste is a system, and it’s going to be a lot more systems-focused.”

Looking toward the future, Leanpath CEO Andrew Shakman believes the industry will move away from the term “zero waste” and will instead strive for a circular economy in which all operations’ waste can be reused in some other way and not end up only in the landfill or compost bin.

“What happens is one operation may have a byproduct that we want to call waste, and the goal is to design that so that it can become a feedstock for some other operation,” he says, pointing out that used cooking oil, for example, can be turned into biodiesel fuel.

Putting Real Data Behind the Problem 

Today’s foodservice operators make decisions based on data—and it’s no different when it comes to the return on investment of waste. As food waste goals move forward, expect to see more operators looking to quantify the problem with a measurable, realistic solution.

The first step in Sodexo’s path to reach waste-reduction goals, for example, had been to identify what was being wasted. The food management company started installing products from Leanpath to gain insight into what was being wasted at each of its sites.

“The moment you start measuring [waste], people start to act differently,” says Shakman.

Before tossing out waste, employees place the discards on the Leanpath scale. The data recorded goes beyond the weight, estimating the value of the item wasted and its environmental effects. From there, operators can use the data to see how much they are throwing away and come up with solutions to filter waste out of day-to-day operations. These data points show key performance indicators being met, allowing for program expansion.

As Sodexo expands the use of Leanpath at additional sites (its goal is to deploy the software at 3,000 sites by this summer and at all of its sites by 2025), it will continue to identify waste-cutting opportunities on a case-by-case basis that are unique to the challenges a particular operation has.

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