The War on Waste
Restaurants throw away mounds of food. But new organizations are using what would have been tossed to feed the hungry.
By Elizabeth Robinson
Americans like to eat. A lot. They’re served plates of heaping portions, they eat to satisfaction and the rest is taken away. Sure, what’s left are just scraps, but those scraps add up. The result: billions of pounds of wasted food.
Over 130 billion pounds, in fact. A report issued by the United States Department of Agriculture found that consumers account for 90 billion pounds of food waste. Whether it’s leaving half of that face-sized burger uneaten or tossing that yogurt because it hit the sell-by date, consumers throw away a full 21 percent of the total food supply in the United States.
The rest of food waste in the U.S. — a full 43 billion pounds — comes from restaurants, supermarkets and other retail outlets. And while convincing consumers to minimize their food waste is an ongoing battling, some restaurants and food charities have already begun to rethink what they do with all that extra food.
An average restaurant produces nearly 150,000 pounds of garbage each year. Whether it’s from the kitchen or the consumer, trash begins to add up.
“We have a certain length of time that we can use all of our food, whether it be fresh vegetables or something that we prepped. And generally most items will have two to three days usage on them,” said Jim Beltz, general manager at Olive Garden in West Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s still good-quality food, it’s just not meeting the product quality that we want to serve to our guests. So at that point, we have to throw it away.”
In fact, in some ways, the law demands that some food be thrown away. There are lots of regulations restaurants have to comply with if they want to stay open. And for good reason. People can get seriously sick — even die — if something really is wrong with the food.
But mitigating that risk has a cost. “When you look at all of the food safety nets that are out there and rules that are written around safety, it can add up to a huge amount of waste,” said Dana Gunders, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Basic regulations come from the Food Code created and administered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Food Code is not the end-all, be-all, though; it’s simply a framework after which state governments can model their own health codes.
The 2013 Food Code includes rules regarding storage, packaging, heating, cooling and other details about various foods. It also provides suggestions for how food should be handled and what to do with food sent back by a consumer.
Although these guidelines are meant to be helpful, there is a misconception about what restaurants can and cannot do. The fear of being held liable for any food-born health issues almost encourages restaurants to waste food, even food that could be perfectly salvageable.
“Really, I think the liability around food safety is a big driver of food being thrown out because of that risk,” Gunders said. “People are much more worried about their liability than they are about throwing food away.”
While many restaurants attempt to stay in the clear and protect consumers by throwing away food that’s even slightly questionable, they’re actually contributing to more problems than they may realize.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste plays a role in several social issues, including food security, use of natural resources and climate change.
“Speaking of natural resources more generally, of course all of the land, labor, water, fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, everything that goes into that food that is wasted is itself wasted. That’s a lot of food and a lot of wasted resources,” said Elise Golan, the director of sustainable development for the USDA.
Of course, the more obvious, pressing issue is hunger. At the end of 2012, 14.5 percent, or 17.6 million U.S. households, were considered food insecure. These households were uncertain of having enough food to meet the needs of all their members at some point during the year, largely due to lack of money or resources.
“You just think about how many people in this country are food insecure. Isn’t there some way we can get that food to them?” Golan asked.
To the Rescue
That’s where food rescue organizations come in. Nonprofit groups are popping up across the country to take food that would otherwise be wasted and donate it to a food bank, soup kitchen or food pantry. Wherever the food goes, it’s going to someone in need — not the dumpster.
“I think the biggest challenge that we’ve run into when we talk to a restaurant, grocery store or catering company about getting involved is there’s concern about health law, and so that’s what always comes up,” said Aubrey Martinez, director of Eat Greater Des Moines. Martinez works to organize food recovery programs around Iowa.
The regulations in place to help protect consumers are scaring restaurants away from participating in food rescue programs. But what they don’t realize is that it’s legally protected. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, enacted by Congress in 1996, protects a person or company from being held liable if the food is donated in good faith to a nonprofit organization for distribution to needy individuals.
Restaurants can donate food that has not been served, but is still safe for human consumption, whether it’s incorrect orders, food that lost its quality look before being served, or cooked proteins or vegetables that were left over after the dish was complete. The food is frozen and is picked up by a volunteer or is taken straight to a food recovery site.
Although some food waste in restaurants is unavoidable, the opportunity to participate in food rescue programs helps minimize the amount.
But for many restaurants the logistics of becoming involved are sometimes difficult. Darden Restaurants, the owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and other well-known chain restaurants, has made food donations a priority. Making that happen, though, hasn’t been easy.
“In the beginning when we first started the program, [it was difficult] trying to find somebody who wanted it [the food] and they would have to come pick it up,” Beltz said. “And then we have to track everything that we donate. Whether it be by the pound or by the item, that has to be tracked. So we have to follow through with all that to make sure it is handled properly so it is going out the door to the food bank in a safe manner.”
For smaller restaurants, the bigger hurdle is the lack of available space and coordinating how food will be transported for donation. Depending on when the food is scheduled to be picked up, restaurants can have donations stored in their freezers for days, taking up space typically occupied by frequently used items.
“I think that for restaurants the whole issue of waste recovery is a very, very difficult logistical problem,” Golan said. “Transporting, to find the space to get it to the food bank before the food rots, to find storage — these are just some really difficult logistical problems. Those logistical problems of getting food to the people that can eat it and preserving the safety of the food, these are difficult things.”
Participating in food rescue programs can have benefits for a restaurant, though. It can greatly reduce the cost of waste disposal, and if the restaurant is large enough, there’s an opportunity to receive a tax break on donated food.
Spreading the word
There’s still one big hurdle to all this, though: awareness. A lack of knowledge is as much to blame for the food waste as the producers and consumers themselves.
“It’s mostly a lack of education,” Martinez said. “I think it’s just a very, very common misunderstanding that people just don’t know that this option is out there and that it’s available and that there’s laws in place to protect those donors.”
The USDA, EPA, National Restaurant Association and other organizations are working to raise awareness for the opportunity and encourage more restaurants to donate food. But if these groups can’t get more restaurants involved, it may be left up to the eateries to spread the word about food rescue.
“We’re doing a good thing. If we didn’t do that it would all just get thrown away, so it’s a fantastic program that we have,” Beltz said. “It’s just helping out those in need. There’s really no down side giving it to them.”
Photo courtesy of Hannah Smith
Every year American restaurants waste billions of pounds of food per year — 130 billion to be exact. What can be eaten or reused is left aside or thrown out. There is a lack of awareness surrounding this waste … But it’s not the only resource we waste: there’s space, natural resources, potential, money all wasted every day. Read more about what we’re wasting and how others are working to reduce that in Think Mag’s “Wasted” Edition tablet magazine.