Let’s talk about food waste in America. Per a 2014 study from the United States Department of Agriculture, one in seven Americans (49.1 million out of 318.9 million people) suffer from food insecurity with communities of color more likely to be negatively impacted. In the United States alone, 40% of food is discarded each year. The restaurant industry isn’t entirely to blame for the amount of food wasted— that number includes households, grocery stores, and farms. This amount of food could serve 58,064,516,129 meals (per the national average amount spent on a meal being $2.79). Considering those numbers and that America is regarded as the wealthiest country in the world, food insecurity should not be among the issues we face.
Food waste can generally be divided into two categories: pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste.
Pre-consumer waste is defined as the food waste that is discarded by those handling the food before it is sold to a customer. Beginning with produce tossed out by farmers for not being aesthetically pleasing, to a purveyor being unable to sell product to restaurant before its (arbitrary) expiration date, or refrigerator trucks failing in temperature control, leaving product unusable— and that’s all before it’s stored on restaurant shelves awaiting preparation.
Once the restaurant is in possession of the food, other factors come into play: trim waste from meat and produce, spoilage, contaminated items, overproduction, or even food that is not prepared properly by untrained staff. While some factors are inevitable, others are completely avoidable and within the control of food handlers. Even a misshapen apple can be repurposed into applesauce or a smoothie, right?
Post-Consumer waste is defined as food that has been discarded after the food has been sold or served to the guest. What you are able to do with leftover food at this point depends greatly on the style of kitchen you have. If the majority of your food sales are from made-to-order dishes, then the fate of the post-consumer waste is up to the guest: if they would like to take their food home or leave it to be discarded. In the case of buffet-style service,for catering or larger quantities, the opportunity for repurposing grows exponentially. Bakeries or coffee shops that fill their display cases with freshly baked breads, cakes, and donuts, likely cannot save the food to sell to paying customers the next day, but that doesn’t mean the only option is the trash bin.
Some kitchens are able to easily repurpose food for their own uses such as family meal, a soup of the day, stale bread ground up for bread crumbs and so on. Chefs are inherently creative individuals who constantly have one eye on their budget and are quick to spot items that need to be used up before they are out of date. At some point, I think that every prep cook has had a chef drop a Cambro off on their station and ask them to use the last of its contents in whatever they were preparing that day.
But some kitchens are not set up to be able to repurpose the food they are left with after a given shift. So, what then becomes of those leftovers? More often than not, they end up in the trash can or down a garbage disposal rather than being donated or even sent home with the employees at the end of the night.
Food donation to those in need seems like the most logical, moral step to combating both food waste and food insecurity within the country.
So why don’t more restaurants donate food?
Some are worried about being sued if the food makes someone sick, some are worried about employees purposely overproducing food to donate, and some—usually the small businesses—simply do not have the resources it would take to get the food to an organization for distribution. Packaging, controlling time and temperature, and transportation are all things that require labor and resources, all of which most kitchens are sorely lacking even before the “labor shortage”.
While some of these reasons pose real restrictions, others do lack validity in their concern.
There is actually no public record of a restaurant being sued or having to pay damages for food donation. What??? That’s right! The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was passed in 1996 and protects restaurants from the risk of legal action so long as the food was donated in good faith.
The Fighting Hunger Incentive Act of 2014 was introduced and would have provided incentivized tax deductions for businesses that donated food to charitable organizations. Unfortunately, the bill did not become public law and the motion to reconsider it at a later time was laid on the table and agreed to without objection. If the bill had made it to public law it would have opened up so many more opportunities for restaurants to easily donate unused product and maybe we could have made more sustainable progress before the pandemic hit. However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 and does offer tax breaks for charitable food donations as the current public law.
In 2016, France passed a law banning grocery stores from throwing away food that could be donated for use and requiring systems be in place to distribute said food. Do you want Freedom Fries with that?
While we don’t currently have any laws like that in place here, we already have some systems in place such as the Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, No Us Without You LA, and Food Donation Connection, to name a few. Some organizations like these exist. There are so many more ways to get food into the hands of those in need that are going to be unique to the many different types of food service establishments that exist.
It’s important to organize in your restaurant and find out what can be done to get food to those who need it most, from families to unhoused people, and even those who prepare and serve the food.
It’s no secret today that the wages for cooks and servers are less than what the cost of living demands at this point and it’s not uncommon for restaurant workers to experience food insecurity of their own, even while being surrounded by food on a daily basis.
The pandemic has become a catalyst for transformation in many ways and the restaurant industry is on the tipping point of some real, sustainable changes. Restaurants shouldn’t go back to “normal” because normal wasn’t working for us even before the pandemic. Livable wages, healthcare for all, better hours, and PTO are a few demands (rightfully so) of restaurant workers these days but, shouldn’t eliminating food waste be among them?
Many chefs enter the industry because they enjoy cooking for others and feeding people. In my experience that is not specific to just a paying customer, it extends to family and friends as well. So shouldn’t it extend to those who are in need? As kitchens reopen, it’s time we put the pressure on restaurants to make a plan, find or create places to donate, implement better practices that will push us closer to eliminating food waste and ensuring everyone has fair and dignified access to food.
How do you like them un-aesthetically pleasing, misshapen apples?