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Foodservice operators are embracing environmental sustainability and food-waste reduction with renewed vigor, as consumer awareness grows and operators themselves take a stronger stance on these issues.
Research from the National Restaurant Association highlights the growing importance of sustainability to both restaurant operators and consumers. The NRA’s most recent What’s Hot survey found that chefs ranked “zero-waste cooking” as the No. 3 trend for 2019, behind cannabis/CBD-infused drinks and cannabis/CBD-infused food.
“Chefs are taking a second look at items they trashed in the past — using coffee grinds to flavor homemade ice cream and showcasing cabbage butts in crowd-pleasing stir-fries,” the NRA says.
Onsite operators pitch in
While a handful of fine-dining chefs have garnered the spotlight for spearheading many of these initiatives, noncommercial foodservice providers have embraced sustainability and food-waste reduction as well.
A program in New York City public schools enlists and trains students themselves to monitor sustainability in their foodservice programs, for example. The grassroots effort, organized by environmental education organization Cafeteria Culture, played a role in the city’s recent ban of Styrofoam from the nation’s largest school system.
“We feel the youth had their voice heard,” Debby Lee Cohen, executive director and founder of Cafeteria Culture, told Bklyner.com.
Meanwhile, public schools in Oakland, Calif., have stepped up their composting and established “sharing tables” where students can place unwanted food that hasn’t been opened, such as cartons of milk or whole fruits, for other students who might want them. The USDA endorsed the practice in 2016, and even issued guidelines for the safe implementation of such programs. (School meal programs generate a large amount of waste, with some estimates put at $1.2 billion-plus worth of food discarded each year in the national School Lunch Program.)
At the University of Kentucky, the Aramark-managed dining program has found that working with local farmers has helped reduce food waste, according to Carolyn Gahn, Aramark sustainability manager.
“When we work with the farmer to determine what we're going to need, there isn't going to be more grown than is used,” she says. “Right off the bat we're eliminating food waste as much as possible, before it even enters our doors.”
In fact, the NRA cites careful sourcing as the No. 1 tool to combat food waste.
“Reduce the amount of food waste you generate by ordering the correct amount of food you need,” the NRA says.
Food waste is just one element of sustainability, however. A survey conducted by the NRA found that the industry has embraced a multifaceted approach that also includes recycling; water conservation; purchasing products made from recycled materials and products that can be composted; and taking steps to improve energy efficiency.
About three-fourths of operators polled — 74 percent — say they recycled their fats, oils and grease used in cooking, and 66 percent recycled their cardboard and paper materials, for example.
Small steps add up
Even seemingly small steps can help operators reduce the amount of waste they generate as they add up over time and across venues.
Accurate food labeling is one important step operators can take, a process made easier by using automated label printing systems such as those offered by DayMark. In addition to assisting with proper rotation of foods to prevent spoilage, using DayMark’s DissolveMark labels also provides other benefits. The labels dissolve in agitated water in about 30 seconds, thus removing them from the waste stream and at the same time leaving container surfaces free of gummy residue.
“For the application of food rotation on a plastic container or a stainless steel pan, this is a very advantageous product,” says A.J. Haas, category manager, food safety, at DayMark.
Another DayMark labeling product that offers environmental and other benefits is its soon-to-be-released continuous feed labels. The labels allow operators to program the length of the labels individually without changing out the roll, which both reduces labor and eliminates scraps.
“There's less waste,” says Haas. “You are cutting to the exact size, so there's no longer that gap between each label that you're wasting.”
Operators have a range of tools at their disposal to improve sustainability. Leading operators are taking a comprehensive approach to sustainability that encompasses energy and water management, recycling, and reduction of food and materials waste.
A food waste hierarchy
Restaurants should consider donating leftover food to hunger-relief organizations as their first priority for disposal, the National Restaurant Association says.
After that, in order, operators’ priorities for donations should be:
- Feeding animals — Farmers will often pick up unused food at reduced cost.
- Industrial uses — Fats, oils and grease can be turned into fuel, and other organic matter can be turned into methane for industrial uses using anaerobic digestion.
- Composting — This offers a productive way to use food scraps that is a better alternative to sending it to a landfill, if composting is available.
- Landfill/incineration — The last resort. In addition to the environmental considerations, food waste is heavy, making it costly to transport to landfills.