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8 Ways Restaurants are Fighting Food Waste

Written by Emily Robinson, MSc Student in the Lang Business School of Business and Economics

We’re all guilty. We’ve all thrown out that tomato that got a little too squishy, chucked that piece of bread that grew a spot of mold, or let that carton of milk become a little too much like… yogurt. Wasting food happens to the best of us, and we’re all way too used to letting it happen. Yes, food waste often happens in homes, however it can take place in lots of different settings. Grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, catering, and pretty much any other foodservice establishment produces food waste to some extent. At home, that one tomato you threw away may not be the end of the world, but when you project those numbers to hundreds of thousands of tomatoes in a foodservice operation, they become a much bigger problem. In fact, it’s such a big problem there are dissertations about how to handle large shipments of tomatoes so that they don’t go off. [1]

Restaurants and other foodservice operations can get a pretty bad rap for food waste. Having worked in the industry for years, I can tell you it isn’t mal intended; in fact it’s often the result of trying to do the right thing! In most cases, the food that’s wasted in a foodservice operation is the result of mandatory health and safety procedures, or of attempting to uphold a certain food quality standard. Does this put restaurants in a difficult position? Definitely. Can they do better? They absolutely can, and some are already putting in the work. These food safety regulations and quality standards don’t mean that everything has to get thrown out at the end of the day, it just means that restaurants need to work a little harder to abide by the rules while avoiding the waste. I’ve had the pleasure of working in and studying several foodservice establishments and I have learned some impressive and innovative solutions to our industry’s food waste battle. There are plenty of available resources to explore food waste solutions such as the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant Project, however here’s a round up of some of my favourites.

1. Composting

This is nothing new, but lots of restaurants still struggle with composting, a solution which in some ways addresses guilt towards wasting food, however it is an essential first step in minimizing food that goes to landfill. A common misunderstanding about throwing away food is that wherever the food is headed it will decompose, which is entirely untrue! The reason composting is so important is that when food ends up in landfill, it actually negatively impacts the environment by producing methane when it breaks down without oxygen.[2] Composting provides an ideal environment for food to break down without any harmful effects. Some restaurants are even taking composting a step further by taking the process into their own hands and converting food scraps back into energy. This process works by capturing the heat generated from food decomposition.[2]

2. Donating leftovers

Food preservation is not addressed in this step, however there are ways to address food safety concerns and ensure leftovers do not go to waste when passed on to food charities. For example, restaurants can put smaller portions on buffets so the rest of the prepared food can remain sealed and in temperature-controlled areas, which makes for a safe pre-cooked meal for someone else. Yes, donating requires more work for restaurants, but that’s why there are organizations that are doing the hard work for them. Second Harvest is Canada’s largest food rescue program that collaborates with foodservice and retail businesses to donate their leftovers to those in need.[3]

Source: Second Harvest 2020

3. Buying Imperfect Produce

A food waste solution that has come up in recent years is the incredibly novel idea of not throwing out perfectly edible, yet slightly misshapen, produce. In all seriousness, in 2017 63% of edible produce in Canada was thrown away, and that’s only in households.[4] This is a massive problem for farmers, processors and food retailers that receive consumer pressure to carry very specific products. Restaurants have the opportunity to turn the ugly into something beautiful without the guests ever knowing its original state.

4. Using Food Scraps

Or, more accurately, redefining food scraps. Broccoli stems, squash skins, carrot peels, and beet leaves are all perfectly edible, nutritionally dense parts of vegetables and fruits. Yet, in part because of the cookbooks we grew up with and the food we’re served at restaurants, we see them as scraps. This is of course a waste of the food itself, but also of the ample resources that go into producing these products like land, water, and energy! There are so many creative ways that restaurants can (and do) use food scraps to increase flavour, differentiate texture, and save money.

5. Using the Whole Animal

I’m not sure why we ever stopped treating whole animals as a resource, but it needs to become mainstream again. Popularizing off-cuts of meat is step one. This has become more common lately with dishes like beef cheeks, short ribs, pork belly, bone marrow, and ox tail appearing on more and more menus. In addition to these cuts, using the carcass, fat and skin of some animals can be great additions to broths, stocks, soups, and sauces. One of the largest criticisms of meat in recent years has been the energy input to output ratio. Using the whole animal helps to reduce this footprint by ensuring that the resources used to raise the animal don’t also go to waste!

6. Repurposing Day-Olds

Repurposing day-old items can fall into almost any food category. Yesterday’s roasted vegetables become a market stew! Leftover salmon and clams become seafood chowder! Old bread becomes croutons, or French toast! Even old pastries can be used to make bread pudding! Repurposing leftover food doesn’t mean less quality, it just means more creativity.

7. Running Out of Food (On Purpose!)

This tactic has come up more in independent restaurants than in franchises, but it’s a very logical solution. Think about it like grocery shopping- you don’t buy enough food on Sunday to last you three weeks, it would spoil before you could get through it all. On a restaurant scale this looks a little different, but essentially it means buying just enough food for the service week, and if things run out- they run out!

8. Portion Sizes

Lastly, portion sizes are a simple way to avoid food waste- this time with the onus on guest behaviour. People want value even if they don’t consume half of the value offered, and the statistics on plate waste in restaurants prove that to be true.[5] One tactic is using physically smaller plates while diminishing portion sizes to make the amount of food appear to be the same as before.

References

[1] Kirkland, E., Green, L.R., Stone, C., Reimann, D., Nichoas, D., Mason, R., Frick, R., Coleman, S., Bushnell, L., Blade, H., Radke, V., Sleman, C., & The EHS-Net Working Group. (2009). Tomato Handling Practices in Restaurants. Journal of Food Production, 72(8), 1692-1698. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/ehsnet/docs/tomato_handling_practices_in_restaurants.pdf

[2] Love Food Hate Waste. (2017). About Household Food Waste in Canada. Lovefoodhatewaste.ca. https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/about/food-waste/#:~:text=In%202017%20the%20National%20Zero,away%20could%20have%20been%20eaten.

[3] Mitchell, M. (2001). On-site composting of restaurant organic waste: Economic, ecological and social costs and benefits. University of California, Berkeley. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eb03/a320b336cf596d11b5c98ada15649902b194.pdf

[4] Second Harvest. (2020). Food Rescue & Delivery. Second Harvest Food Rescue. https://secondharvest.ca/what-we-do/food-rescue-delivery/

[5] Von Massow, M., & McAdams, B. (2015). Table scraps: An evaluation of plate waste in restaurants. Journal of Foodservice Business Research, 18(5), 437-453. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15378020.2015.1093451