As economies slowly begin to reopen, the picture of what awaits foodservice is starting to come into focus. What we’re seeing are new challenges–but also significant opportunities–for food waste prevention.
To be sure, it will take some time for volume to return in certain foodservice sectors. And there will be safety-related changes that may have a positive impact on food waste, at least in the short term. For instance, salad bars and buffets–which normally represent significant sources of food waste due to overproduction–may be shuttered entirely or reconfigured with more single-piece production, leading to less food waste. Menus in the restart period are likely to be more limited to lessen supply chain risk and give operators more flexibility to adapt, also reducing waste.
That said, we’re entering a wholly new era for foodservice.
Operations will not just be reopening, they will be starting over. Menus will be newly updated, service styles will change, demand will be difficult to determine with precision until new patterns emerge. And kitchens can’t look at prior years for guidance. We are entering a time of unpredictability, and food waste thrives in an unpredictable kitchen.
- Shifts to more grab-and-go service still require advance assembly, which always opens the door for waste.
- Restrictions on dining capacity and increased spacing may require longer meal periods, more serving platforms or locations to increase throughput, all increasing the risk of food waste from expiration.
- The need for social distancing in kitchens will alter familiar prep patterns and increase the risk of food waste.
- A heightened safety focus may lead to a higher discard bias in foodservice operations–i.e. the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra, which we have long decried, may become even stronger.
- And over time, consumers will grow weary of limited menus and demand more choice, leading to increased potential for waste.
In normal times, high-production kitchens could easily cover small mistakes in production planning: too much was prepped for breakfast today, we can easily store and repurpose tomorrow. Lower volumes don’t provide that luxury, and small mistakes are amplified.
This all creates a very dangerous time where operations that had food waste under control, as well as those that didn't, risk a major increase in food waste and heightened costs.
This period of reopening brings substantial food waste challenges, but also presents many opportunities.
We believe that:
- Reopening kitchens provides the opportunity to put in best practices from the start. And by setting standards to track and measure food waste from this new beginning, operators can achieve better control over it, allowing kitchens to more quickly understand what is and is not working in their new menu adaptations.
- New operational protocols will involve higher operating costs: longer hours and more staffed service as opposed to self-service buffets, for instance. Combined with lower volume, tight margins will be squeezed further. Reducing food waste will take pressure off those margins.
- Consumer expectations of foodservice providers to act responsibly with food will be higher now that consumers have gained a deeper understanding of the value of food and the frailty of our food system. This creates an opportunity for positive, sustainability-driven messaging.
- Finally, from a high level, global food system perspective: Excessive food waste is a driver of biodiversity loss and deforestation, which in turn accelerate the potential for pandemics like COVID-19.
The global food waste crisis has not disappeared, it has increased.
The need for kitchens to manage food waste–for financial and sustainability reasons–has increased as well.
This will be a challenging time for foodservice. But it is an industry that, even in the best of times, overcomes challenges every day, sometimes every hour. And at a time when so much is out of a kitchen’s control, food waste doesn’t have to be. At a time when labor costs and revenue are moving in unhelpful directions, preventing food waste is an asset, and a path to better margins. Now more than ever.
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