The amount of food being wasted in the United States each year is staggering. In fact, it’s the dirty little secret in the food and beverage industry today.

Rather than focusing on the discouraging statistics, though, we’re going to talk about food waste solutions—admitting from the get-go that foundational steps for reducing waste aren’t very romantic. To get a solid handle on understanding waste at the Culinary Vegetable Institute—food and food-related—in 2016, we took a deep dive. Into our garbage.

After an event at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we decided to separate our trash. The largest items were, ironically enough, recyclable ones. So, as one step in our program to reduce food waste, we asked our waste management company to pick up our recyclables more frequently.

Next, we looked at weight, and the heaviest items included coffee grinds, scraps from plates, the tops of vegetables, peels, stock bones, mirepoix, and so forth. You get our drift. After seeing this waste, up close and personal, we immediately started a composting program. And, after taking those two steps—more frequent pickup of recyclables and composting—we discovered that there was so little garbage that our pickup frequency was cut in half.

We’d had four trash cans in the kitchen, and now we had just one—and, once we noted how we’d cut our garbage bag purchases by 70 percent, we knew we were on the right track.

But we’d created a new challenge. As we made daily runs to our compost heap, the compost was growing faster than what we could manage. And, at that point, Chef Jamie Simpson had this thought: “What if we got livestock to help us manage this?” We now have Heritage Breed Mangalitsa pigs, a rare breed that thrives on vegetable-based diets—ideal for us—a breed that’s exceptionally well suited for Northern Ohio winters.

Becoming a Registered Cannery

As we continued to gain control over food waste at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we turned to help The Chef’s Garden with any potential waste they might be experiencing. Because of that, when the supply of a particular vegetable at the farm is larger than current demand, we have delicious produce to preserve.

To make that happen, we took a course at UC Davis California to become certified in preservation and opened a root cellar so that we could create and store vegetable- and floral-based vinegars, cocktail bitters, cover crop miso, natural sodas, healthy junk food, hot sauces, powders, flour, pickles, charcuterie, honey and more.

Now a minimal waste kitchen, we are always watching for creative and innovative strategies that restaurants use to reduce waste, as well as information about programs created to reduce food waste. In this post, we’ll share some of what we’re seeing around the web.

Reducing Food Waste: Strategies for Restaurants

In February 2019, a report was released, titled The Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Restaurants, that examined pre-consumer waste from 114 different restaurant locations from 12 different countries. They discovered that, when restaurants created food waste reduction programs, 76 percent of them recouped their investments within the first year. Over a three-year timeframe, the average benefit-cost ratio was 7:1, with the typical location saving more than two cents on a dollar through their efforts.

Researchers discovered that five strategies were the most effective in these food waste reduction programs:

  • Measure food waste
  • Engage staff
  • Reduce food overproduction
  • Rethink inventory and purchasing practices
  • Repurpose excess food

Measure Food Waste

Restaurants that quantified, as an initial step, how much food was wasted were also able to see where that waste was taking place. This allowed managers to identify waste hotspots and prioritize fixes. The report notes that sites using digital tools tended to get better data than those using manual measuring; the latter can often lead to underreporting of waste and doesn’t necessarily highlight all of the areas where waste can be reduced.

Engage Staff

The success of food waste programs rely heavily upon staff engagement, with kitchen and service teams needing specific guidance about what’s expected. Guidance can be formal or informal, provided in a way that avoids any perception of blame-placing. If a staff member, for example, feels as though he or she is being blamed for food waste, then that person will likely become less engaged in being part of the solution. Because some of the most creative strategies come from kitchen staff, it’s important for managers to encourage collaboration and build rewards into the waste reduction programs.

Study results also indicate that:

  • when staff become frustrated, turnover tends to increase, and staff turnover creates an environment where food waste actually increases
  • to make food waste prevention a part of the restaurant culture, it should be included in the location’s training procedures and daily operations

Reduce Overproduction

As restaurant teams find where food waste is taking place, this helps them to determine how much food actually needs produced to meet demand. It isn’t usual for restaurants to discover that overproduction has been playing a big role in their food waste. Specifically, “batch cooking, casserole trays, and buffets tend to overproduce food relative to cook-to-order preparation.” A restaurant may be using these processes to save time and money but, if the hidden costs of food waste aren’t considered, then it may mean that another preparation method should be considered. Each restaurant will need to do its own analysis.

Rethink Inventory and Purchasing Practices

To further reduce waste, it can make sense to review historical waste information and see how your inventory management system can be adjusted to reduce waste. For example, if you need to order food from your suppliers too far ahead of time, how much becomes spoiled? How can you find a vendor that can provide supplies right when you need them? What is the shelf life of products purchased?

Repurpose Excess Food

No kitchen can perfectly forecast customer demand all the time. This means there’s significant potential for extra ingredients and leftover food. Each restaurant should therefore have a plan focusing on how to safely repurpose what’s available. Suggestions included in the report are:

  • unsold meat intended for breakfast may be a potential ingredient for lunch or dinner dishes
  • restaurants using a set cycle menu can add a rotating menu slot that allows them to feature extra ingredients
  • “Sites that incorporated previously unused food (for example, peels, seeds, skins, bones) into dishes were able to produce value from items that typically go straight to the waste bin.”
  • offer edible but unsalable food to organizations that distribute it to people who need the food, rather than throwing it away

The report also includes case studies of successful food waste management programs, including The Ship Inn’s, a pub in the United Kingdom. This pub began with a simple manual measurement system where they sorted waste into three bins—spoilage, prep, and plate waste—to get an overview of how food was being wasted in their establishment.

Recognizing a need for procedural changes, they made them one at a time. This gradual approach allowed the team to determine how effective each change was and created a sense of momentum as each new step was added. Plus, by giving the staff time to incorporate one change at a time, this can give them more ownership in the food waste reduction program.

After just four weeks of manual measurement, the following results were achieved:

  • 84 percent of spoilage reduction: “through waste awareness among kitchen staff, resulting in improved working practices”
  • 67 percent of plate reduction: “primarily through portion size options and removing garnishes, which have been popular changes with customers”
  • 72 percent reduction of overall food waste

In the 2018 Restaurant Food Waste Action Guide, the non-profit ReFED estimates that, for every dollar invested in reducing food waste, restaurants can see about $8 in cost savings. The report also notes that, out of the 63 million tons of food waste in America, about 11.4 million of it is occurring at restaurants—at an annual cost of about $25 billion for the restaurants.

ReFED considers food waste to be a solve-able problem, but one that “needs big picture solutions, including significant funding, support from policy makers, innovation and education to change behavior.”

The report suggests that food waste reduction programs in restaurants could cut food costs by 2 to 6 percent, at a savings of about $620 million each year. How? Here are recommendations:

  • repurpose food prep trim/overproduction; lemon peels and kale stems, for example, can be ideal for cocktails
  • give diners more portion size choices, and encourage them to order the quantity of food that makes sense for them
  • use smaller self-serve plates; diners usually fill their plates or bowls by about 70 percent

They also reiterate that what’s measured gets managed. So, they encourage tracking food waste and then improving processes based upon what’s learned. As just one example, Aramark rolled out the use of a tracking/analytics platform for 500 large accounts. In just two years, the foodservice company has reduced food waste by 44 percent, preventing about 479 tons of food from ending up in landfills.

We’re going to highlight one more recommendation in this report, and that’s to use “imperfect” produce, also called “ugly” produce—and that’s exactly what’s at the heart of a Mantra artisan ale made from ugly carrots grown at The Chef’s Garden.

Ugly Vegetable Beer

Here’s the thing. “Ugly” vegetables taste as delicious as their perfectly formed siblings, and they have the same levels of nutrition. They just don’t look as pretty. And, a series of events, beginning in 2016, allowed The Chef’s Garden to collaborate with other passionate professionals to create a craft beer from imperfect carrots.

This collaboration is ultimately much bigger than the beer that was created, bigger than the carrot, bigger than farming and brewing. This craft beer is actually the ideal vessel to demonstrate innovation and how we can, together, tackle food waste challenges in our country.

At a high level, here’s what happened:

  • At Roots 2016, Jordan Figueiredo spoke about finding food waste solutions.
  • When Farmer Lee Jones was giving a farm tour to James Beard Award-Winning Chef Maneet Chauha, he shared his passion for using ugly vegetables to reduce food waste.
  • Chef Maneet is a founding partner of Mantra Artisan Ales.
  • After the farm tour, she discussed the possibilities of making ale with ugly vegetables with her co-founder, Vivek Deora.
  • The duo created an amazing artisan ale using ugly carrots from The Chef’s Garden.
  • Attendees of Roots 2017 got to sample this beer, a collective experience that led to further discussion about food waste reduction.

And, yes. The ale got a resounding thumbs up!

Going Forward

Food waste problems may never truly be “solved,” which means that people passionate about this challenge must keep finding creative strategies. In May 2019, we took Roots—our culinary conference—on the road to the Dallas Arboretum, with the event ending with a “Waste Not, Want Not” dinner.

Having a dinner of this type naturally opens up more conversation about how to tackle the problem of waste—and, if we’ve learned one thing on our journey to date, it’s that every step counts. Every single step plays a role in counting down to zero. Zero waste.

We started this post with a description of the steps we took in April 2016 to further reduce waste at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Since then, we’ve continued to develop lines of defense before something is considered to be garbage. If you’re near the beginning of your own food waste reduction program, you could consider starting with how to deal with vegetable peels.

At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we wash and scrub vegetables, rather than peeling them. But, if you want to peel them, here’s what you could do with them:

  • Dehydrate them to lower the volume and eliminate the need for freezer space to store them.
  • Put the dehydrated peels into a bag or box.
  • Once the quantity increases, put them into a dried mirepoix.
  • Use that mirepoix in stocks and broths.

You could, for example, dehydrate potato peels but dress them in oil. Bake them at a low temperature until golden brown, then steep them in just enough water to cover them, and you’ve got baked potato consommé. That, in turn, can be used as a cooking liquid, a potato glaze, a broth for gnocchi, and so forth.

We’d love to continue this conversation! If you’d like to talk to someone at the Culinary Vegetable Institute or The Chef’s Garden about food waste reduction, please contact Erica Sanicky.