Reducing Food Waste
Dining Services and Cafeteria Operations
According to the USDA, 30-40% of food produced in the U.S. is wasted. There are a lot of reasons why this occurs. And there are a lot of altruistic responses to that waste. But addressing food waste in dining services and cafeteria operations can be difficult if you rely only on altruistic arguments.
Discussions regarding food-waste-reduction strategies often focus on what to do with the leftovers/waste that has already produced, and typically focused on a hierarchy of collecting those items to feed people (donations to local shelters and soup kitchens), feeding to animals (collecting food waste to feed to pigs or livestock) or composting (feeding the waste to the myriad of micro-critters that transform that material into compost). All of those are wonderful initiatives and I encourage anyone to explore those options.
But opportunities to prevent food waste in the first place may better align with dining services operations and budgets. At first producing less food seems to be the antithesis of a dining manager’s goal to produce food to satisfy customers. But food waste, particularly post-consumer food waste, represents a failure of your dining services goal. It is dollars that went into procuring ingredients, staff labor to prepare and serve that food, and other related costs (e.g. heating or cooling of food, storage, etc.). But none of those dollars actually fed your customers. They fed a dumpster, or garbage disposal or compost bin.
What if instead of altruistic arguments, you approached food waste as an opportunity to improve customer satisfaction.
Composting – an opportunity for feedback.
From a dining services perspective, one of the greatest values of composting has little to do with waste reduction or green initiatives. Composting is an opportunity for instant feedback regarding your dining services operation. You can do customer satisfaction survey after customer satisfaction survey, but one of the most effective ways to see which menu items are resonating with your customers and which are not is to look at what your customers are discarding in the compost bin.
As an example, one of my former schools used to provide a free pickle with every deli sandwich (like all “free” menu items, this was not truly free but merely subsidized in the cost of other items). But after looking at the compost bin, a dining manager realized that almost all of those pickles were being discarded uneaten. The dollars from that line in their menu budget were literally being wasted. So they made a logistical change. They simply changed the default scenario from “the pickle being given unless it was proactively declined”, to “the pickle was available free for anyone who wanted one, but not automatically given.” The results were significant. Customer satisfaction increased. Anyone who still wanted a pickle got one and was satisfied, but the 75%+ of that budget line was freed up to spend on other things that led to greater customer satisfaction among the other customers. So while the pickle waste was in and of itself not huge tonnage diverted, it was a gateway to further waste reduction efforts.
Another school ran into a similar scenario with portion size. When they looked at their compost bin they saw that the preponderance of certain menu items was being discarded only partially eaten. That was confusing for dining staff who swore that menu item was popular. Subsequent customer surveys and outreach revealed that the item was popular but for most, the portion size was too big. To resolve this issue, they started offering the “standard” portion at half the size, but allowed folks to take a double portion without any issues. The result was satisfied diners, a massive reduction in the amount of that item in the waste stream, significant budget savings available to spend on other items that would lead to even greater customer satisfaction and engaged dining staff that was pressing me to implement programs as opposed to the other way around.
And with this approach, the reductions can include packaging as well as food. One of my schools had a little study café with a grab-and-go menu. Upon each order, the menu choices were placed in a paper to-go bag for students to carry to their destination. But once dining staff were engaged in the food waste effort, they noticed that most students were eating their to-go meals right there in the study area, not carrying them somewhere. So they experimented. Rather than automatically placing the menu item in the to-go bag, they made a stack of bags available to anyone who needed one. The result was that bag usage (and perhaps more importantly bag budget) was cut by more than half, freeing up more money for other customer-desired menu choices.
None of those examples referenced above will get you to 75% diversion on their own. But the important takeaway is momentum. It got dining staff engaged in identifying potential solutions themselves.
Who or what are you feeding with your dining dollars? Perhaps focusing on the answer to that question will help you meet your foodservice sustainability goals.