Against the backdrop of growing environmental and societal concerns, restaurants may soon come to be judged not just by how good the food is, but also by how well the food waste is managed.
Guest Post by: Yana Manyukhina, Doctoral Researcher, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds
America’s trend towards super-sizing does not seem to be slowing down. 16 oz soda cups, oversized dinner plates and even a single serving of ice cream at our beloved Berkey Creamery are a testimony to the food industry’s efforts to satisfy the customer with eye-pleasing amounts of her favourite treats. The health and body effects of the Gargantuan meals have long been at the center of public discourse, but the detrimental consequences of serving unmanageable portions go beyond individual consumers’ fitness and waistlines. Shocking amounts of food sent to landfills on a daily basis (around 1/3 of all global and up to 40% of American production) present one of the biggest economic, environmental, as well as ethical challenges that confront our society. Wasted food means wasted water, land, and fuel resources (did you know that it takes 45 gallons of fresh water to produce one single glass of orange juice or that on average food makes a journey of 1500 miles before reaching your dinner plate?1). Excessive food production also involves unnecessary environmental damage – agrochemicals used in farming, transportation pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions from organic waste rotting in landfills are all major contributors to environmental degradation. Finally, in a world where more than 800 million people are suffering from hunger and food insecurity2, throwing perfectly edible goods away seems like a moral crime. But who is responsible for it?
Restaurant food facts
*The average restaurant portion in the US is four times bigger than it was some 50 years ago
*17% of the food ordered in restaurants remains uneaten
*More than half of the restaurant leftovers is not taken home
*More than one-third of the restaurant leftovers taken home ends up in a trash bin
Food waste is a compound issue with many different actors at each stage of the entire food chain – from producers to retailers to consumers themselves – contributing to its ongoing exacerbation. Today, however, I’d like to focus on one particular player – the restaurant industry which, with the total food and drink sales expected to hit 700 billion dollars in 2015 in U.S. alone, has enough power to either aggravate the problem or help to solve it. As the level of environmental awareness among general public grows (along with, as some may point out, the pressing need to improve corporate social responsibility reports while cutting down on costs), many eating establishments have started to take steps towards addressing the food waste issue. It doesn’t take a lot of detective work to realize that one of the most obvious measures to reduce the amount of food destined for landfills is to switch
from feast-size portions to “just enough” servings, which is exactly what many restaurants are currently doing. Applebees’, The Cheesecake Factory and TGI Friday’s are examples of popular casual dining places which have been experimenting with smaller portions and “skinny” menu versions for the last several years, primarily under the pressure to stop promoting obesity. Modest food helpings might be harder to achieve in a buffet-style eateries where consumers are responsible for filling (read – piling up) their own dining plates, but some restaurants seem to have found a way around the problem. So, in a restaurant in Switzerland customers allured by the “eat as much as you can” offer are getting fined if they fail to do just that. A symbolic fine levied upon diners who fail to match the size of the food portion with that of their stomach is meant not to boost profits, but to encourage more mindful consumption, says the restaurant owner4.
Wonder what your local eatery is doing to address the problem? Driven by the same curiosity, I have emailed a number of downtown restaurants here in State College to find out where they stand on the issue of food waste. The Tavern has been especially responsive, and I couldn’t miss the chance to visit the place and get a first-hand insight into its waste management strategy. No one could have been more helpful in that than the restaurant
owner himself. Patrick Daugherty took me on a very revealing tour around the kitchen where I could judge the scale of the food waste and Tavern’s ways of dealing with it. Turns out that Tavern is big on recycling – it participates both in the Centre County
Recycling as well as State College Borough Compost Programs. Food waste generated in the process of cooking is collected into specially designated bins – combined together, they amount to over a ton of organic waste every quarter.
Dealing with customers’ leftovers is a greater challenge. Tavern’s food servings are continuously reconsidered in an attempt to cut costs and reduce food waste: I was quite surprised to learn that the first shrinking of the restaurant’s portion sizes occurred back in 1980s. More recently, the management adjusted the size of some of the fish dishes – for example, customers are now free to choose for themselves how many crab cakes they want on a plate. Besides, diners are also welcome to take uneaten food home. And yet, achieving perfectly clear plates proves almost impossible – different appetites and palates mean that certain meals inevitably remain unfinished or even untouched, and food loss increases significantly during weekly brunch buffets.
Managing customers’ leftovers is harder than dealing with kitchen waste – on busy nights, as Pat honestly admits, efficiency and speed of service must receive a priority. I guess what this shows is that, although restaurants can – and some do – contribute to tackling food waste, it really does take a change in consumer attitude to move just one little step closer to zero-waste eating experiences.
So, is your meal going to match your appetite next time you’re eating out?
- I Value Food. (2015). The Hidden Value of Breakfast. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://ivaluefood.com
- World Food Programme. (2015). Hunger Statistics. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats
- National Restaurant Association. (2015). News and Research: Facts at a Glance. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://www.restaurant.org/News-Research/Research/Facts-at-a-Glance
- Varghese, J. (12 May, 2014). Swiss Restaurant Imposes Fine on Customers Wasting Food. International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.co.in/swiss-restaurant-imposes-fine-customers-wasting-food-600131