Anthony Bourdain’s noble 2017 documentary, Wasted!, about the systemic blight of global food waste, is a welcome and high-profile spotlight. Reducing food waste is a moral and environmental imperative. We throw out hundreds of millions of tons of food while millions of people go hungry. That wasted food contributes tons of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere and leads to trillions of gallons of wasted water.
At LeanPath, we welcome and embrace all the voices that are helping to increase the volume on the issue, and Wasted! does a great job of amplifying the concern about our damaging and inefficient food system and highlighting solutions from around the world.
But what contributes to the movie’s high profile -- the wattage of its celebrity chefs -- may also be the thing that causes it to overlook the biggest contribution foodservice can make in reducing food waste. God bless Dan Barber for plating cauliflower greens instead of discarding them and Mario Batali for creating white-tablecloth meals out of “trash” fish, but the real key to commercial kitchens dramatically reducing food waste is going to come from something less glamorous: reducing overproduction.
According to ReFED, a global nonprofit, 40 percent of food wasted in the United States comes from consumer-facing businesses -- restaurants and the like. LeanPath’s decade-plus worth of data shows overproduction is the single biggest cause of foodservice food waste, accounting for 41 percent of the waste stream in 2016.
There are deeply held, and sometimes unspoken, beliefs that lead to this: the kitchen doesn’t want to run out of any item and upset a customer, and the staff wants public-facing food stations like salad bars to look fresh and full all day and until close. At the end of the night, every customer was fed what they wanted and the merchandising looked beautiful. And a lot of food got thrown out.
It’s this overproduction that is such a critical component of foodservice waste, and in understanding it, kitchens can stop buying and producing so much food to begin with. The term for this is “source reduction,” which sits at the very top of the EPA’s Food Waste Hierarchy. Wasted! addresses aspects of source reduction including waste on farms and using more parts of plants, but skips overproduction.
And we get it. There’s nothing glamorous about a pan of lasagna getting thrown away because too much was cooked. But in ignoring this major contributor to food waste, the movie neglects two very important lessons. The first is that the real foodservice change agents here are the hard-working kitchen teams that do the critical job of measuring waste, learning from it and making changes to production to get it into balance. And the second is the responsibility the restaurant customer carries in all this. Those kitchen beliefs that lead to overproduction are, after all, driven by consumer expectations. We need to use media vehicles like Wasted! to help well-meaning consumers understand that their expectations are silently driving overproduction and over-merchandising, and that an elegantly stocked buffet that shrinks as closing approaches isn’t a sign of poor service, but a sign of a responsible and appropriately waste-sensitive operator at work.
Wasted! does a fantastic job of putting the issue of food waste in front of those consumers. Maybe in the sequel they can show them how to be a part of the food-waste solution when they dine out. And next time we’d hope to see and hear more from the teams at the front line of foodservice who are working hard to fix this issue and who are quietly and incrementally changing our world for the better with each bit of food waste they prevent.