Sustainable Planet, Sustainable Business: Connecting the Food System and Commercial Kitchens of the Future

Rethinking Waste

Forty percent of the food we produce in the United States goes to waste, according to a 2009 report from the National Institutes of Health. In "Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: The Embedded Energy in Food Waste in the United States" (Environmental Science Technology, 2010), authors Amanda Cuellar and Michael Webber state, "the energy embedded in wasted food represents approximately 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the United States, which is substantial when compared to other energy conservation and production proposals."

In an attempt to curb these wasteful ways, more kitchens are going back to basics, Christian says. "I remember when I was first starting as a chef we did everything ourselves using sharp knives and some skills. We even had separate meat coolers and walk-in coolers, but that's gone away now because everything comes in neat packages."

When waste does occur, composting represents one approach to managing it, but cutting down on the waste before it happens is another, more significant step, according to Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath, a waste management consulting firm.

For example, about 20 percent of protein waste happens at the retail, institutional and consumer level, according to the Environmental Working Group's Meat Eaters Guide; emissions from consumed and wasted beef in the United States account for 56 percent of this country's total greenhouse gas emissions. That's followed (nowhere near as closely) by emissions from unavoidable waste (moisture and fat loss during cooking) at 19 percent; emissions from avoidable waste (plate loss and spoilage) at 15 percent, and emissions from food processing waste (5 percent), home cooking (4 percent) and domestic transport (1 percent).

So simply reducing beef consumption, and subsequently production, will lower food waste. Ultimately, this could lead to cutting greenhouse gas emissions virtually in half. That's where source-reduction efforts come into play, such as portion control, à la carte and smaller-batch cooking, better cold storage and fresh ingredient management, using the whole animal or offering more vegetarian options. These changes will only help shrink what a foodservice operation composts in the long run. The first step is to measure and track waste where it happens in kitchens. This allows the foodservice operator to determine what processes and procedures need to come next to reduce preconsumer waste levels, Shakman says.

Colleges and universities remain ahead of the curve on this, and equipment and supplies specialists help them get there by designing and specifying better cooling and storage systems, receiving and prep areas, knives and other supplies, and more.

Packaging also takes up a huge part of the waste pie, Christian points out. Buying in bulk can help cut down on this waste, particularly in school foodservice, where scratch cooking versus heat/reheat is making a comeback. But this should extend beyond simple food prep and cooking techniques. Foodservice operators should examine every aspect of their business through a sustainable lens. For example, is it necessary to open up full cans of fruit to reportion the contents back into individually wrapped plastic bowls that customers will just throw away? Is it necessary to use plastic wrap when storing food items, or are reusable bins and sheet trays okay?

And, since we're on the topic, is it better to use more permanentware instead of disposables or even compostable disposables? Can the broadline distributor provide food and supply items in larger containers — or even reusable ones? Is it possible to create space on the loading dock to store reusable containers from smaller farms, distributors and suppliers? These are the types of questions Christian asks of his clients.