Most people agree that wasting food is wrong, especially those who have built their businesses and careers around the food experience. Yet 40% of the food we produce gets wasted and sent to the landfill. According to a 2018 ReFED report, U.S. restaurants are estimated to throw away nearly 23 billion pounds of food each year. It would require more than 700 million garbage trucks to take all of that discarded food to the landfill. End to end, a line of those garbage trucks would stretch around the circumference of the Earth a whopping 125 times.
Let’s break down what that waste looks like. First, there is pre-consumer waste which occurs in the kitchen, such as trim waste, overproduction, and mishandling (e.g. overcooked, stored at unsafe temperatures). Then, there is post-consumer waste, which is the food that customers leave on their plates after a meal and must be thrown away.
So what can restaurants do to reduce the amount of waste that gets tossed in the trash? Here are five ideas to help restaurants reduce food waste, which not only stops food from entering the waste stream but saves the restaurant money as well.
1. Keep menu options limited
When eating establishments offer huge menus with endless pages of dishes, that means all the ingredients required to make all of those options must be stocked. Limiting the menu to a curated list of offerings reduces the number of ingredients the kitchen has to keep on hand, thereby lessening the amount of food that ends up in the waste stream.
2. Reduce portion sizes
Portion sizes have grown significantly over the past few decades, sometimes doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the original size. They’re even often between two and eight times larger than the standard USDA or FDA serving size. Reducing portion sizes, providing more portion-size options, and providing take-away boxes can help retailers limit what is thrown away post-consumer.
3. Corporate policies
Restaurants that are part of a chain may be limited in the options they have, restricted by specific rules about what happens to food once it is made, such as how long it is allowed to sit under a warmer. While this contributes to uniform standards, it also contributes to food waste. Policies should regularly be revisited to consider how food waste can be reduced without negatively impacting consistency or quality.
4. Waste audit
It’s not a pretty job, but conducting a waste audit can give you a good idea of how big the food waste problem is and where to address it. By going through the trash daily over the course of a week, one can determine how much food waste (as well as paper products, plastics, and metal) is tossed. A less messy way to conduct a food waste audit is to designate a trash can only for food waste and weigh it daily. Just measuring it is likely to raise awareness in the kitchen.
Staff often have negative feelings about throwing food away. Having a conversation with kitchen staff can make food waste a safe topic to discuss. Ask staff to brainstorm ideas of how to reduce food waste together.
Working together to fight global hunger
Nearly half of produced food is wasted, which doesn’t even account for the waste of all of the resources that went into producing that food, such as water, land use, and labor. But on top of that, there is the global problem of hunger. Pre-pandemic, 1 in 9 people faced food insecurity. Now that number is being reported as 1 in 5. The co-existence of food waste and hunger doesn’t make logical sense. There is more than enough food to feed those who are experiencing hunger. The real problem is distribution. Food banks can be helpful in handling large amounts of surplus shelf-stable food, but the more complicated issue is how to deal with small amounts of perishable food that become available with unpredictable frequency.
One answer to that is food rescue. Most U.S. cities have food rescue organizations where fresh, perishable food is picked up from retailers, like restaurants and grocery stores, and then distributed to people facing food insecurity—tackling both food waste and food insecurity at once.
To help combat these issues, technology is taking the stage as a powerful tool. For example, Food Rescue Hero is a platform powered by more than 21,000 volunteer drivers, working with thousands of retailers to make surplus food available to nonprofits that distribute to people in need. A volunteer driver receives a notification of available food and claims it, like a rideshare driver claims a ride. The volunteer picks up the food at the retailer, and the app guides them to a nearby nonprofit where they drop it off. Sometimes concerns arise about the reliability of volunteers, but fewer than 1% of rescues are missed, putting Food Rescue Hero’s service level at 99%. The Food Rescue Hero platform makes it easy for retailers to donate surplus food, not only diverting it from the landfill, but directing it right to people in need.
Benefits of food rescue for restaurants
Cost savings Reducing the amount of discarded waste reduces waste management costs.
Tax advantages A food donation means a tax deduction for the restaurant.
Morale When employees are forced to throw away perfectly good food, it can negatively impact morale. Conversely, knowing that surplus food is being donated tends to create positive feelings for staff.
Zero-waste goals California and the State of New York have passed laws making it illegal for retailers to discard organics along with trash. More states will follow. Get a head start on reducing waste now to stay ahead of the process.
As new establishments—as well as our favorite eating and drinking spots—begin to open (and reopen) their doors, we celebrate gathering together to share meals. This new chapter is an opportunity to shift the way we handle surplus food and address food insecurity.
Jessi Marsh is Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Food Rescue Hero, the technology platform that powers food rescue in 12 U.S. and Canadian cities with the world’s largest fleet of on-demand volunteer food drivers in the world. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.