November of 2014 was an exciting month for me. My semester was nearly over, I was going to sunny LA after having won a sweepstake (I know-how cool is that!) and finally all of my summer networking had paid off with the opportunity to take part in an actual Corporate Food Waste Audit.
I was more than excited; I was ecstatic! I was going to help observe and log results of an all day food waste audit at one of the hippest corporate offices in NYC for one of the trendiest company out there. The company in question is known as a tech pioneer and is one of the most successful companies on both coasts of the country. I was hopeful-too hopeful perhaps- that this company would set an example of how to properly manage food including creating minimum food waste. Turns out I was quite wrong.
Below is my attempt to recreate my personal learning and observations from that day. The goal is to both shock the reader as well as to look at it from the hopeful perspective of finding some solutions to reverse the waste exposed.
Gourmet meals (healthy and otherwise) cooked onsite are now considered a welcome and expected perk offered by both new and established companies alike. This interesting article talks about some of the crazier perks offered; food and unlimited vacation being two of the most popular ones. Looking at things from a positive perspective, it’s great that this particular company is able to afford such a variety of cuisine for its employees. It’s even better news that they understand they might not be doing things perfectly and therefore wanted to take a stock of what is the environmental and social cost of this perk by conducting a food waste audit.
Now, back to the day of the audit. Each of the three floors of the office had one main cafeteria and two to three smaller snack cafes. There were probably 10-15 chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs etc. for each floor. The cooking staff was there much before any of us, although all of us had been asked to get there by 7.00 am (before the employees were expected to start trickling in). Our job as waste auditors was to observe, note, and then, give them some recommendations on how to better manage their food and their food waste.
Breakfast was an elaborate affair. There was one counter with only fruits-mixed fruits, cut fruits, berries-you name it. There was even watermelon in the dead of winter! Another counter had at least ten to fifteen varieties of spreads-cream cheese, butters, jams etc. I don’t remember what were the other breakfast options available but needless to say there were many choices and therefore much food waste as well.
The same story was repeated for lunch. There were two extremely large vats of soups, cold salads, hot salads, all the meat options anyone could ask for – (fish, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, lamb), cakes, pastries- the term that came to mind was ‘a spread of embarrassing riches.’ In fact, it almost felt as if there was multiple celebrations going on in the cafeteria.
Although it initially felt like a wonderful employee perk, by the end of the day, I knew that I wouldn’t be comfortable if I had to come in everyday to work and see so much food going to waste. And this waste was happening at the same time as there were postcards of ‘let’s end world hunger’ kept on each dining table and similar posters hung prominently on their dining walls. So why were the employees not feeling the same reaction? It was because food waste was invisible to practically everyone except the kitchen staff throwing it away. Awareness and transparency is key to bringing about any positive change.
In one single day, our team had logged and collected a total of close to 5500 pounds of organic (i.e. food) waste across all the large and small dining venues. This was mostly the excess thrown away in the kitchens-both prior to serving and post breakfast/lunch hour meals. We estimated an additional 500 pounds of consumer plate waste resulting from frankly having larger eyes than the stomach can eat i.e. food leftover on the plates. How much is 6000 pounds of waste? Imagine a Toyota Prius. 6000 pounds is the weight of two Toyota Prius cars. That’s how much food was being wasted every single day at this one office. With a little more imagination put to work, you can see why food waste is such a big problem everywhere- consumer homes, restaurants, offices, grocery stores etc. According to this excellent report produced by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), a collaborative between food manufacturers and grocers, close to 11% of all food waste is corporate waste.
Another major reason for so much waste was from buffet style dining. Not only was there too much variety, but also large quantities of each variety. Reducing both quantity cooked and number of items cooked would go a long way in reducing the corporate food waste footprint. The kitchen staff could perhaps counter this by paying closer attention to how much food is thrown away at the end of service and then scale back the recipes or the amount of food prep they are doing.
In addition, perhaps employees would prefer to maybe eat a little less (in the event food runs out) vs. cooking twice the amount needed just to ensure everyone has plentiful available and more. On that day, many of us noticed FULL and untouched buffet platters being tossed out. Even within 30 minutes of the end of service, the buffet trays were being refilled to the brim.
Data Analytics is the rage now; shouldn’t it be used in house for better food management? For example, currently, the kitchen staff is expected to cook more than 100% of the expected meal count in preparation for potential events and daily guests. If getting a better estimate of the meal count can be achieved by investing in a little prior communication, wouldn’t that be worth everyone’s effort and time? In that regard, there are a few companies coming to the limelight that help do exactly that. Leanpath is one such company; they help you measure your food waste so you can better control it and eventually reduce and then eliminate it.
Lastly, another major cause of corporate food waste stems from the false notion of uneaten food necessarily being unhealthy food. Thus, at most company’s employees are not allowed to take food home nor can the food be donated because of fear of being sued in case there is potential food poisoning. In this regard, it was refreshing to read about the software company SAS. As per this article, “Employees can order leftovers from the company kitchen to take home.” The same article has a lot more innovative and more sustainable ideas on food perks that both feel like a perk and is at the same time socially responsible.
With that positive note, I hope if you get a chance to visit or work at a company that offers free or subsidized food, you will be a little more aware of any potential food waste that might be happening out of ignorance and perhaps work on reducing it. Your meal just might taste a little better with your next bite. J