Food waste: for some kitchens, it’s considered a four-letter word. It’s a topic that people avoid talking about, even if it means ignoring an elephant in the room. For other operations, food waste represents an opportunity for them to do better, save money and help the environment.
Most foodservice operations throw away between 4-10% of the food they purchase before it’s ever served to a guest. In most cases, this isn’t largely unavoidable melon rinds and onion peels—instead, much of it is preventable waste caused by overproduction, expiration, spoilage and other culprits. After working in kitchens for over 11 years, we know every operation has food waste, even the best in the industry. And while the topic is getting much more attention in the media today than it ever has before, at LeanPath we still run into misconceptions about food waste that limit action on the issue. Read on for the five myths we hear most often.
Myth #1: "Exposing our food waste will make me/us look bad."
We’ve never encountered a waste-free operation, or anything close to it. That’s because even with rigorous menu planning, inventory control and seasoned staff, there are other business dynamics that generate waste. The best operators recognize that waste isn’t a black mark on their record. They view it as an issue to be managed openly and daily: just like safety, sanitation or customer service. They know they will never be perfect, and that’s no excuse not to try.
To make this change, they know they need to understand the challenge in detail. You simply don’t know what you don’t know; and many organizations don’t track or measure their food waste, so they’re in the dark. For an executive chef, you can “plan the work,” but you don’t always know if your team is “working the plan.” Talking about food waste as a transparent and approachable topic sets apart the leaders in the industry. These folks know food waste typically isn’t a measure of individual performance but rather a team challenge that can be minimized by building a culture that’s committed to waste prevention.
Myth #2: "Tracking our food waste would take too much time/labor."
The best way to get a handle on your food waste and reduce it is by tracking it, whether using paper waste sheets or automated systems. The time it takes to record a wasted item is trivial—with technology systems like those we create, it requires less than one minute per employee per day on average. You don’t need to add any incremental labor and there is no increase in labor cost. Further, the minimal time spent to record a wasted food is extremely valuable time spent—it raises the team member’s awareness about waste, causing them think about how it could have been prevented. With automated systems, they can even understand the financial value of that item in the trash, and this certainly opens eyes.
Myth #3: "We don't have any food waste."
Now I may sound like a broken record right now, but this is a very important point: every operation has some measure of avoidable food waste. For a director or executive chef, how do you know what goes on in the kitchen when you’re not there? Are you using transparent trash cans or compost bins to see everything that’s going in them? Do you have a rigorous measurement program in place that provides you with detailed data to confirm that you’re not wasting any foods—including those pots and pans with excess product being scraped by a dishwasher? Do you know your avoidable food waste trends: last week, last month, and last year? If you can’t answer “yes” to all these questions, I guarantee you aren’t seeing the full picture and you’re likely underestimating your avoidable waste levels. And that is a huge missed opportunity.
Myth #4: "We've got food waste covered—we do composting."
Composting programs have picked up a lot of momentum in the last five to 10 years as people are raising awareness about the harmful environmental effects of sending organic waste to sit and rot in a landfill. These programs are important and we enthusiastically support composting in the right circumstances. However, just because an operation is composting wasted food, that does not mean that they’ve checked the box on food waste and dealt with it.
To understand why, look to the U.S. EPA food recovery hierarchy, which ranks food waste management practices from the most preferred (at the top) to the least preferred (at the bottom). Composting plays its role in keeping food out of the landfill, but it doesn’t address the upstream environmental impact it takes to produce the foods from the farm to the kitchen. On the financial side, you are also still paying for that food that’s going into the compost bin. The most preferred option environmentally and financially is source reduction, which involves understanding what’s being wasted and why in order to prevent it from happening again.
Myth #5: "My team doesn't care about food waste—they're busy with other things."
If you hold this view, you’re probably underestimating your team. When we launch a food waste prevention program, we find most members of the front-line are excited to work on this issue. Why? First, because most of them don’t waste food at home and know it’s not the “right thing to do” to waste at work. Secondly, because it involves them in important, purpose-driven work, something to be proud of beyond the basics of the food operation. Many feel empowered since they are uniquely positioned to lead the charge on food waste which our society needs so badly. You can read more on this in a short article I authored for the National Restaurant Association Conserve blog, An unexpected way to boost employee engagement.
Next time you are talking about food waste management strategies at your operation and you hear any of these objections come up, debunk them! Your operation’s bottom line will thank you when you’re able to talk about and address avoidable food waste openly and positively.
Do you have other myths to add to this list that you’ve successfully debunked in your operation? We want to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.