Reid Health and MGM Resorts make strides in food waste reduction.

Recycling, composting and using a pulper system represent great ways to divert food from landfills. But what about producing less food in general?

Source reduction and reuse remains at the top of the EPA’s waste management hierarchy, before recycling and composting, before energy recovery, and finally treatment and disposal. Operators that want to assess their performance can start by developing a clear, visual image of how much food waste they produce on a daily, even hourly basis.

Case Study: Reid Health

Cooking in smaller batches has kept overproduction issues at bay for the Reid Health culinary team.For Reid Health, a 207-bed, independent, nonprofit hospital serving 3,600 meals a day, the waste reality sprung up via its food donation program.

In the fall of 2016, the hospital began donating leftover food, pre-consumer from its cafe and catering operation to local soup kitchens. Items deemed suitable for donations include entrees and other food stored in hot boxes, but that were never used. The food bank provides freezers for the hospital, and staff members transfer the leftover food to disposable pans and packaging for safe, convenient travel and use.

“It was eye opening because this was the first time that we really saw how much we were overproducing,” says Kris Ankeny, director of food and nutrition services at Reid Health in Richmond, Ind. “Before that it was just going down the garbage disposal. We didn’t have a good system for post-production reporting, and just seeing all the food go to the food bank, while that is a great thing, made it obvious that we were producing more food than we needed.”

Before taking steps to reduce food production, and ultimately, waste, the food bank would come three times a week. Now, it comes just once a week.

How Reid Health Reduced

Waste management doesn’t happen by one person alone. It takes a team. Ankeny began the effort by organizing a waste management team. In addition to herself, that team includes the central kitchen chef, the head of procurement, the cafe manager, and some full-time staff members. They continue to meet weekly to set and review goals. Brainstorming, collaboration, and best of all, accountability, works.

“We are regularly looking through all of our waste tracking reports and photos and honing in on areas we can improve and cut down on our production,” says Ankeny.

Next came food waste tracking scales. Reid Health installed scales fitted with cameras and software for real-time data and analytics in its central kitchen. As a result, the hospital cut food waste in half. Ankey reports food waste dropped from $1,400 per week to between $600 and $700 per week. Her ultimate goal is $500 per week or less.

What once was a three-times-per-week food waste donation has since become a once-a-week donation. Moreover, Ankeny says food costs have dropped 6 percent to 7 percent year
over year.

Operators can invest in any number of tools and technologies to track and measure waste, from simple scales to more sophisticated systems that include cameras and tracking software, similar to the system Reid Health now uses.

However an operator tracks food production and waste, they must regularly analyze the results to translate that data to reduced production.

One culprit in Reid Health’s case came in the form of boneless chicken. “We would donate whole pans of chicken at times,” Ankeny says. “We would note that on our service menu so that the next time we rolled out a special using chicken, we could reduce the total production by 15 servings until we honed in on exact production amounts needed.”

Data also showed a lot of waste due to expired in-house, sliced deli meats. “We are looking at the timing of when we do our own slicing and other areas in order to reduce those production amounts,” Ankeny says.

Repurposing Food

Simply switching from a large-scale, batch-cooking operation to a from-scratch, small-batch process can cut down on overproduction.

During its waste evaluation process, Reid Health discovered that while a lot of leftover boneless chicken was re-used for entrees like General Tso’s chicken or sliced into strips for fajita chicken strips, even those pieces were often wasted.

“Chicken strips are the number one seller in the cafe, and we used to just fry bag after bag. Even at the end of a meal period we’d throw a whole bag in,” Ankeny says. “Now, we have our staff fry in much smaller batches, and we hold them accountable by having them fill out a form if they have fried more than what was needed.”

Ankeny also switched from purchasing 25-pound bulk boxes of pre-steamed vegetables to 2-pound frozen bags. Reid Health now uses combi ovens to steam the vegetables in preparation for serving. The result was less waste, as intended, but an added benefit was better-tasting veggies. Smaller batch cooking has also led to $1,000 savings in mashed potato waste over the course of just two months, she says.

Menu Downsizing

Editing a menu to focus on a handful of solid dishes, rather than an overly wide variety, can also help prevent food waste.

Following this plan, Reid Health shrunk the hot bar cycle menu from four weeks to two; soup offerings from three to two, and cookie varieties from seven to four. Customers don’t seem to mind the reduced offerings, Ankeny says, given that they can also choose from a brick fire pizza station, a salad bar, grill station and chef’s table, which still follow a four-week cycle.

The team has also reprioritized food waste, which now takes priority above the chance of running out of product and indicates a mindful approach to reduce inventory and the risk of having to throw out expired food.

“We’re also looking at bringing in less product, more often,” Ankeny says.

Staff Incentives

While holding staff members accountable for overproduction can help reach reduction goals, incentivizing helps build a more longstanding culture around food waste.

As part of its “Help us Get to Zero Waste” promotion intended to jumpstart waste management efforts, Reid Health gave out a Zero candy bar to every staff member who tracked food waste. “You can’t be perfect — there is always going to be some waste,” says Ankeny. Implementing a plan, however, has helped Reid Health get closer to that goal.

MGM Resorts Launches Food Donation Program

Following the success of a pilot program at ARIA Resort & Casino Las Vegas Resort, MGM Resorts plans to roll the dice on its food donation program at some of its other properties, including the Bellagio, MGM Grand, The Mirage and Mandalay Bay. MGM Resorts will also continue its program at ARIA. MGM Resorts provided a 2-year, $768,000 grant to Three Square, the receiving food bank, for infrastructure development that will streamline the collection of surplus banquet food.

MGM estimates that the extended program will help provide 100,000 pounds of food, or 800,000 meals, for those in need by 2020.

Donated food will include hot and cold food from buffet banquets, including proteins, starches, vegetables, salads, breads, desserts, etc., per Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts International. MGM Resorts does not donate food from plated dinners or from buffet trays that were opened. It only collects surplus banquet food that has not been served.

“Food is collected from hot and/or cold boxes in banquet kitchens,” Siddiqui says. “Food being held for donation has never been exposed to contamination by being on the buffet line, employee-dining line, or exposed to customers.”

Three Square food bank, Southern Nevada’s only food bank, receives the donations from MGM Resorts. The food is then blast chilled at the Three Square facility and held frozen in storage. In turn, Three Square distributes the food to a service network of approximately 1,300 community partners to reach food-insecure individuals. These hunger relief agencies later defrost and serve the food based on need.

MGM Resorts and Three Square food safety teams placed a strong focus on integrating food safety practices and protocols through all steps of the program design. “Only food that has been maintained at proper temperatures, per food safety guidelines, is eligible,” Siddiqui says. “Many teams are involved to enable the safe, efficient, and legally acceptable donation of food and beverages. Meticulous, weekly coordination between Three Square and MGM occurs to ensure timely transportation, vetting of temperatures and freezing of food.”

Hoping to inspire a larger movement to reduce food insecurity, MGM Resorts plans to share its standard operating procedures with other hospitality properties.

Siddiqui says the kitchen to community program has rescued more than 80,000 meals from August 2016 to December 2017 by blast chilling, freezing and inventorying large quantities of unused food remaining from banquets. “Given the size of MGM Resorts’ convention business in Las Vegas, donations from our company alone can meaningfully further reduce food insecurity in Southern Nevada,” he says.

Equipment that can assist with Source Reduction and Reuse

Blast Freezers. These dual machines allow operators to blast freeze fresh produce and vegetables immediately after delivery. The equipment serves to preserve extras for longer-term use and avoid throwing out quickly-spoiling produce if not used all at once. Blast freezers can also quickly and safely freeze overproduced, pre-consumer entrees and hot dishes for reuse or donations if those foods were held at safe temperatures within the designated timeframe for safe food-holding.

Dehydrators. These low-temp ovens can turn over-ripened apples into apple chips, make granola out of soon-to-expire oats and transform other food for new uses and longer-term storage. Dehydrators can also dehydrate soon-to-expire onions, for example, which can then transform into a shelf-stable spice or spice blend.

Waste-Tracking Scales and Software. Ranging from the very primitive to the very advanced with built-in cameras and real-time feedback, digital scales allow operators to weigh food about to be thrown out. This makes waste visible, especially in areas of overproduction.

Smaller-Scale, Batch Cooking Equipment. Smaller, more compact combi ovens, steamers and saucepots are better for small-batch cooking that can help prevent overproduction.Juicers and Blenders. These pieces of equipment easily turn about-to-expire fruit and vegetables into cold-pressed juices or smoothies.

“Trash” Cooking

Pickle Tasting Credit 312Food copy 2Pickling, canning or dehydrating can extend soon-to-expire foods, making them viable for chip variations, jams, dips and more. Photo courtesy of 312Food

Many more chefs and even cocktail artists around the country now strive to reuse trim, scraps and other “trash” for dishes, drinks and desserts. At Big Jones in Chicago, Chef Paul Fehribach practices root-to-stem whole vegetable cooking. That means rather than discarding stalks, tops, leaves, trim and more, he uses those otherwise trashed scraps in purees, pestos, sauces, soups and stews. He also pickles, cans or dehydrates soon-to-expire produce for tasty condiments, charcuterie accoutrement, jams, chips variations and more.

For example, Fehribach will saute the leaves of ramps as a side dish and also pickle the bulbs for later use in sauces, or perhaps as a garnish. And the woodier bottoms of asparagus can become the base for a bisque.

When cabbages are really fresh and have lots of outer leaves, Fehribach buys them in bulk to make sauerkraut. He uses the green leaves to make stuffed cabbage leaves, a popular entree at Big Jones. The heart, or stem, of the cabbage cooks into soups or stews.

Another multiuse vegetable, sweet potatoes, bring two dishes to the menu: the sweet potato hash in fine cubes and sweet potato bisque made with the scraps.