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Green Tip: Measuring Sustainability

Taking steps toward developing a sustainable foodservice operation is not nearly as difficult or intimidating as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the fashion industry, few would argue with the assertion that green has become the new black in foodservice the past three or four years. And the popularity of green continues to grow as many operators begin to track their results and realize a positive return on their investments, which can lead to the introduction of more black — this time in the form of ink on a balance sheet. Simply put: The more foodservice operators can quantify their sustainable success, the more they want to do in this area.

Conducting energy audits, including simply comparing year-to-year utility bills, represents one component of measuring sustainability. But today's operators can take advantage of other opportunities for more detailed sustainability measurement.

Reducing Carbon Footprint

While the idea of carbon footprint reduction creates quite a buzz these days, few people really understand what this means and all it encompasses. "We define carbon footprint as the total greenhouse gas emissions that are directly attributed to a particular business and that are not part of the supply chain as a whole," says Jeremy Mohr, analyst, carbon accounting and advisory services at Ecova, a Portland Ore.-based energy and sustainability management company.

Mohr looks at all energy use and emissions within the operation's literal footprint, which includes the physical framework as well any vehicles or other offsite energy-consuming equipment the business uses on a regular basis. These days, that could include off-site catering, delivery cars, mobile trucks and other ventures. After this first "boundary-setting" step, Mohr will collect utility bills, mileage reports, gas bills and other documentation showing energy use from foodservice equipment, building HVAC and vehicles in the second step of the process.

"The third step is understanding the correct emission factor for the electricity, natural gas, diesel and propane," Mohr says. "We look at the total usage and apply correct factors to develop their carbon footprint."

A correct emission factor is a representative value that attempts to relate the quantity of a pollutant released to the atmosphere with an activity associated with the release of that pollutant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These factors are usually expressed as the weight of pollutant divided by a unit weight, volume, distance, or duration of the activity emitting the pollutant (e.g., kilograms of particulate emitted per megagram of coal burned).

Essentially, Mohr's team uses mathematical equations set by the EPA to determine average total emissions from the business. Generally, multiplying total energy burn by the correct emission factor will reveal the carbon footprint.

While the federal government develops most of these correct factors, states and municipalities can have their own standards. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, governing bodies from the region determined that for every kilowatt a business burns it uses 0.6 pounds of CO2, Mohr explains.

After determining the carbon footprint, the business and Mohr's team can use this information to set goals; for example, striving for a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date or time period. The team also helps businesses pinpoint where their emissions come from, breaking down different aspects of the operation.

While internal benchmarking is important, unfortunately no industry-wide set of standards exists when it comes to carbon footprints for foodservice operations, most likely because each operation tends to be so different. In a perfect world, there might be different benchmarks available for restaurants and foodservice operations of similar types and sizes in different categories so these businesses can compare their carbon footprint standings with their peers, says Mohr. But, the industry's not there yet.

"Determining carbon footprint is just another lens to use in making decisions," Mohr says. Businesses can implement initiatives, from simple moves in sustainability like switching lighting to LED bulbs, to more complex kitchen redesigns, and then remeasure the carbon footprint to determine the impact. Steps like these play an important role in strategic sustainability planning and measurement.

Conducting Energy Audits

Energy audits work in conjunction with determining carbon footprint. In fact, they represent the next step a business should take after determining its carbon footprint, says Mohr. That's because energy audits typically emerge as the easiest way to measure sustainability.

"A lot of states have programs that you can typically use to get an energy audit pretty cheaply, if not for free," Mohr says. The goal of these audits is to find ways to save money, of course, and to assist, on occasion, with capital investment-related decisions, according to Mohr.

One of the simplest things an operator can do to improve total building energy savings is make sure the facility is properly insulated, he says. "This applies to everyone and it's the number one climate impact reducing initiative. So much heat can be wasted through the walls without proper insulation."

Secondly, lighting presents another easy opportunity for quick energy savings. While LED and other efficient bulbs cost more up front, their energy savings come through faster than any other equipment in the building. "A restaurant with their lights on nonstop will see a savings within the first one to two years," Mohr says. Demand ventilation and energy-saving equipment represent the next steps up in energy reduction.

While some of these steps may not necessarily be new, tracking the impact of energy-saving initiatives still presents a challenge for many businesses. Others simply haven't begun to track.

The first step in an energy audit involves gathering the utility bills (often already collected for the carbon footprint analysis) and tracking the energy usage month-by-month, and then, year-by-year, says Paul Kuck, energy manager at Ecova who specializes in these types of audits. "We encourage operators to start by collecting two years' or more worth of utility bills, which may include electric, water, gas, or, in some cases, trash bills," says Kuck. From there, operators can create their own spreadsheets, download online tools or hire a third party to not only enter this information in an easily readable format, but also one that can be used to analyze and strategize.

"These spreadsheets can be as detailed as the client wants," Kuck says. There's even room to enter average seasonal temperatures to spot out-of-season spikes in gas rates, for example.

"Basically, we're tracking the usage, costs, and dates to determine consistencies and inconsistencies," Kuck says. Why did the water bill skyrocket in June? Was it a dry month requiring more irrigation? Why did the energy bill go up that one day last week? Did an employee leave a walk-in cooler door open too long?" For multiunit operators, specifically larger chains, this assistance in tracking energy use per store is invaluable.

Digging deeper, installing separate sub-meters throughout the kitchen and the entire building, for that matter, can break down energy use for a more detailed audit, Kuck says. Going one step further to install pre-programmable thermostats helps prevent employees from adjusting the indoor temperature themselves, and maintains more consistent energy use.

When it comes to tracking energy use for individual pieces of equipment, the Food Service Technology Center and (founded by Kuck) offer several different calculators for tracking energy savings. Beyond that, maintaining a solid equipment repair log for preventative maintenance helps this equipment stay in top shape and reinforces energy-saving properties, Kuck says.

Another aspect of energy audits, aside from simply calculating consumption across units, is working with utility companies to make sure the reporting and billing contain no errors. "We make sure the client is being billed correctly at the same rate, and that there is no double billing or late charges," Kuck says.

Local Food Sourcing

Many operators strive to buy more locally produced food, not only to enhance the quality of their menu but also to reduce carbon footprint (trucks travel less, release fewer emissions). That's one thing, but not everyone takes the next step to measure the impact of this type of initiative.

At Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital and Clinics in Prairie du Sac, Wis., the first step to measuring growth in using local foods started with the invoices, according to Amy Miller, RD, CD, nutrition services director for the hospital. "We are working toward a goal of sourcing 25 percent of our food from local purveyors," Miller says. "First, we needed to find out where we were at, which was only eight percent." The team did this by collecting monthly purchase orders and invoices and inputting that information into a separate spreadsheet.

"Each vendor has a heading, and we know which products are local based on that information," she says. "Each month we'll input the products we purchased and calculate the percentage of products that came from local vendors." Last year, the hospital hit its initial goal of 15 percent, and Miller estimates they are currently at 22 percent.

Some of the changes the hospital implemented to buy more locally was working with its food distributor to make simple, similar-cost substitutions from conventional to local product. Miller and team would even drive their own van to the produce auction offered in Southwest Wisconsin to haul back their own ingredients from local farmers at reduced rates. "It's easier for us to take one truck rather than receive multiple deliveries from multiple farmers, and it reduces our carbon footprint," she says.

The team also began purchasing more products in bulk, such as whole sides of beef and whole roasts. As a result, the hospital did have to make adjustments to its cold storage. "We had to make a lot of rearrangements in the walk-ins," Miller says. "We also had to clear off tow racks in the cooler just to make sure we had room for our minivan worth of produce." But the fact that the hospital was already operating on a made-from-scratch platform meant it already had the storage space, prep tables and proper cutlery to handle the bulkier products.

Waste Management Tracking

Food waste cost calculators and tracking tools are available from a variety of resources. The EPA offers a free calculator online to estimate the cost competitiveness of alternatives to food waste disposal, including source reduction, donation, composting and recycling of grease.

LeanPath, Inc., a Portland Ore.-based waste management consulting firm, offers a waste audit as the first step of the measurement process.

The audit tracks not only quantity of waste but food type too, which is particularly helpful as costs continue to rise, according to Andrew Shakman, LeanPath president and CEO. A calibrated scale works just fine for tracking, as will a piece of paper on a clipboard with check-off boxes and space to record numbers. For larger operations, however, software-generated reports help operators plan their menus and develop incentives for staff to monitor their waste. Software also helps users identify spikes in waste activity resulting from spoiled product or over-purchasing.

Waste audits also help measure reduction initiatives, from increased donations or changes to the operation. For example, if high waste numbers come from the soup station, the operator might opt to switch to small-batch production and note the results again. Increased donations to food banks and reusing scraps for stocks, soups and more creatively in other dishes can also help show reduced waste numbers.

"Operators and consultants have realized that any waste management effort needs to begin with good data," Shakman says. "How much waste do we have?  What is it?  Where is it coming from?  Armed with this information, it's possible to measure progress: Is total waste decreasing?  What percentage of food waste are we diverting to compost? What is the cost of this waste?"

Green Seal, a sustainability certification program, even requires a total waste audit as a certification requirement.

"The reality is if an operator wants to achieve financial or environmental benefits from waste reduction, a food waste audit is the place to begin," Shakman says. Measuring is a messy job unless the waste is weighed at different areas of the kitchen before comingling with other product. Separating scales in this way also helps track specific areas of the kitchen where waste is occurring.

Sustainability can seem like an abstract concept. With so much talk of it, we may now understand which sustainable steps we can take; measuring our efforts, however, makes them real.


Online Resources for Measuring Sustainability

Green Guide for Healthcare:
World Resources Institute Working 9 to 5 on Climate Change
Food Service Technology Center’s Energy Efficiency Tool
Institutional Food Market Coalition