Waste Management: Preventing Waste Before It Happens

When foodservice professionals discuss waste management, the conversation generally turns to composting, recycling, and donating excess food — anything that happens after the food has been wasted. But what about preventing the waste from occurring in the first place?

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While composting and recycling remains important for managing post-consumer waste, waste prevention versus landfill diversion alone is becoming more of a focus among foodservice operators, says Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath, a waste tracking software and solutions company. "People are starting to work higher up on the EPA's waste management hierarchy," Shakman says. Visually depicted in the form of a five-step inverted triangle, the hierarchy starts with source reduction; transitions to reusing food in the form of donating it to hungry people first, then animals; moves to energy recovery for industrial uses; to recycling/composting; and, finally, on the low-end, landfill and incineration.

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Enhancing operational efficiencies and better training staff to cut down on waste before it happens is especially important in areas where composting facilities may not be readily available or if recycling poses a challenge. "We're still only diverting 2 percent to 3 percent out of the landfill," Shakman says. "My perception is that operators are much more aware of the need to explore options to manage waste beyond just composting and recycling."

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While the environmental concerns are well-documented, waste management is becoming more prominent in businesses looking to cut costs. Simply put, they can compost, recycle and donate all the food waste they want in an attempt to offset their efforts, but foodservice operators that over-produce or over-purchase are generating waste in the form of cash spent and what goes out the back door to the trash or composting heap.

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"Americans throw out 25 percent of the food they prepare," says Christy Cook, senior manager of sustainability deployment and field support for Sodexo, which ran a waste prevention pilot program with LeanPath for eight of its college and university foodservice operations. That food waste ends up in a landfill where it creates methane gas, wreaking havoc on the ozone layer if it isn't captured and used for energy-source purposes, according to Cook.

Shakman also points out that energy embedded in wasted food represents two percent of annual energy consumption in the United States, according to a study by the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas in Austin. That may not seem like a big number on paper, Shakman says, but it's a huge percentage when we're talking about just one of the many forms of waste this country sees.

According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, roughly 40 percent of food produced in the United States is wasted. Now that's a more clearly significant number; just less than half of total food production goes to the garbage.

Zero waste goals are effective waste reduction programs because all waste must either be composted or recycled, so businesses must rethink their disposable and packaging needs as well as bump up efforts to prevent waste before it happens.

Clearly, though, getting to that "zero waste" goal, or even just focusing on pre-consumer waste reduction in general takes some planning, operational reshaping and training. Let's break it down.

Reduce Overproduction
Through Sodexo's partnership with LeanPath to track waste at various stations throughout the kitchens at eight college campuses, the team was able to zero-in on areas of the kitchen making too much food. That led to a 33 percent reduction in waste, Cook says.

"One report told me I had a lot of waste at my soup station one week," says Cook.

"I used that report to ask can I use that soup somewhere else? Can I reduce how much I'm making? Can I switch to a half pan instead of a full pan?"

Cook's team found that by switching to small-batch cooking and determining which soups sold better than others, they could reduce the wasted food. "One of the things

I hear so often is everyone wants to compost, but never deal with the simple act of reducing what you're creating."

Switching from buffet-style stations to more action, made-to-order stations may increase labor slightly, but it also cuts down on pounds of wasted food, Cook's team found. Using shallow pans with greater variety in smaller portions refilled when needed at the salad bar also helps create an illusion of abundance to the eye, even if there is strategically less food put out.

A similar tracking/waste reduction program was used by the Veterans' Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, which reduced wasted food by 86 percent each week. That translated from a waste reduction of more than 1,500 pounds of wasted food per week to less than 300. The Martinsburg VA then sends any leftover waste to a compost facility or donates it to a local food bank for further landfill diversion.

Purchasing and Inventory Control
Both production and purchasing influence waste, with forecasting driving decisions in both areas. But it is difficult to forecast how much food will be needed for a day or a week, but tracking waste can work backward in the sense that an operator knows what sells and what doesn't.

At Sodexo, Cook's team pays careful attention to the season, day of week, demographics and historical usage to determine the amount to purchase and keep on hand. "We try to purchase what's local and in season," Cook says. When it comes to inventory control, "it's as simple as walking through the coolers and seeing what you have before you order, while also looking at what you have from previous days that you can incorporate into a special item."

A daily practice, Sodexo kitchen staff will walk through the coolers at the beginning of a shift and at the end to determine what food needs to be used quickly to avoid waste. "We try not to increase our deliveries — we're constantly trying to decrease mileage on trucks." In that sense, "going green" also helps reduce waste.

In addition, Sodexo has partnered with GS1 US, a non-profit, universal standards organization focused on applying the same barcoding standards it has for retail to the foodservice supply chain to reduce waste, both in logistics and in food. "We just upgraded to a new food management system and part of that is providing more information about the food we purchase, including information about local and seasonal products," Cook says.

Serving and Portion Control
A few years ago, trayless dining was all the rage among many non-commercial operators. Turns out, it continues to help cut down on food waste, too. "It may sound simple, but we try to reinforce the idea of taking only what you think you'll eat and don't take more," Cook says.

Offering samples, and encouraging students to try different foods before taking a full serving also helps cut down on waste in the long run. "We try to do a lot of tastings, but not too many so that we're wasting food there," she says. "We don't set the samples out, but will offer them to students when asked."

Menu Development
Maintaining a flexible menu with chef's specials, limited time offers, or other daily specials can help operations use up what they have on hand and prevent over-purchasing.

"We try to empower our chefs to make decisions about the food we serve," Cook says. "Sure, we have a menu cycle, but at the same time we're not going to serve something just because it's on a cycle menu — we definitely encourage all our members to look at what we have."

Waste management, then, is not just about managing waste after the fact. It's about respecting the food we have available to us in order to prevent waste.

Education and Training
Educating staff and consumers both is the key to waste prevention, Sodexo has found through its various initiatives. A large part of prevention, though, comes from training and empowering staff to understand and adopt the culture of waste prevention.

"Students speaking to students is the most impactful way to communicate, we've found," Cook says. At one of the pilot program campuses, dietician students developed a video to encourage students to take only what they think they'll eat or less, and reconsider a second portion because it takes 20 minutes to know we're full." In addition, a couple of times a year, a number of campuses hold a Weigh to Waste campaign where students, instead of dropping food in the garbage, drop the food in various containers, which are then weighed and that information is shared with the campus.

Each participating site in the Sodexo pilot also has a Stop Waste Action Team (SWAT) comprised of employees to help guide staff in waste management efforts. This group reviews the waste tracking data, sets specific goals for improvement, and tests waste prevention ideas. This is the same team that leads daily "huddles" to review waste management priorities as well as point out team members doing a good job of saving food.

To further create this culture of waste management, Sodexo has updated all of its training manuals to include a whole program on waste tracking and reduction. The training program also includes an overview of waste in general, from lessons on organic versus non-organic waste, packaging waste, upstream and downstream waste, and food waste. "At the end, there's a review of everything and a quiz," Cook says.

Part of that training is bringing in in external experts called SEED (Sustainability, Education and Expert Development) members to visit college, healthcare and other campuses around the country to conduct onsite and online training.

"There is a focus from the leadership positions, from executive chefs to the office of sustainability, the president of the company, and district managers to talk about sustainability," Cook says. Sustainability, including waste management goals, is also incorporated in the annual review process to maintain accountability.

While this demand may come from the top at Sodexo, on a national level waste management is becoming a consumer-driven affair. "We first saw customers asking about where their tomatoes are grown," Shakman says. "That transparency trend is not true with waste management. People can no longer not know where their waste is going."

In American Wasteland, author Jonathan Bloom cites an e-mail from Shakman at the end of the book. " We come to value that which is scarce and expensive," Shakman wrote. "Food is neither scarce nor expensive in America right now, and yet it's one of our most fragile resources. We do not have sufficient respect for the precious plants and animals that sustain us because the concept of not having them doesn't enter our consciousness. If we had less abundance and less reliability in our food system, we would value food more and waste less."

Waste management, then, is not just about managing waste after the fact. It's about respecting the food we have available to us in order to prevent waste.


Best Practices in Pre-Consumer Waste Prevention

A lineup of best practices developed as a result of a LeanPath partnership with Intel Corporation's Cafés (operated by Bon Appetit Management Company)

  • Vegetable Trim Waste - chef reviews trimming practices; reuse trim for soup, sauce and stock production
  • Unused Fruit – work into chutneys or sauces used in daily offerings
  • Pizza Stations – move to a batch‐oriented production model throughout meal periods; use unused calzones in products such as soups; use extra toppings for salads and other foods
  • Soup - use tracking data to establish leftover amounts; review customer flow, seasonal preferences and weather to reduce production levels per day
  • Chili - Utilize leftover chili the following day as a topping for baked potatoes and other entrees
  • Daily Leftovers - discuss reuse opportunities among culinary team; create a special station for new menu offerings using safe and safely stored leftovers
  • Starches – puree certain starches and use as thickeners and texture enhancers for soups and entrees; use leftover potatoes for new menu station, pizza toppings and other entrees
  • Coffee – curtail coffee production in the afternoon; chill leftover coffee for iced coffees and flavored iced coffees
  • Deli – convert to a staffed station with made-to-order sandwiches for better portion control
  • Salad Bar – reduce vessel sizes and display bowls; change layout of salad bar; add more variety in smaller batches
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