Can institutional kitchens scrap their culture of waste?

Sensemaking / Can institutional kitchens scrap their culture of waste?

Waste reduction can help address issues of food quality and increase profitability, argues Greg Christian of Beyond Green.

30 Sep 2014

I asked the food service director of a hospital in Pennsylvania how much leftover food they have daily. I was told that they just remember. With over 100 kitchen staff, 400 patient rooms, and a bustling cafeteria, they have no way to track how much food gets made just to be thrown away.

Alternatively, an independent school that I work with in Buffalo, New York is weighing their waste every day. This includes two areas essential to waste management: plate waste, to know if portion sizes are too big or small, and production waste, to know if they are regularly producing unsold quantities.

As a consultant, I’ve been travelling the US and Canada for the past decade helping institutions to implement changes in their dining halls. Most have an idea of what they would like to improve upon, and that usually comes down to the quality of food.

The majority of kitchens have been built for large menus that require processed foods. The two deterrents I hear to purchasing fresh are that it will cost too much or there is no time to cook it.

Over my 30 years of industry experience, I’ve found that reducing waste addresses both of these things. Waste has had a lot of press since the National Resources Defense Council found near 40% of food produced globally is wasted. We can’t hear it enough with issues of food security and obesity knocking heads across the globe.

While major initiatives have been implemented, there are endless individual facilities that operate on tons of waste. It has been built into profit and loss calculations. But what if provider P&L statements could look the same, or even better, while increasing local sourcing, patronage, staff pride, and public reputation?

Before increasing quality there are things to consider: equipment needs, staff skills, and menus. But when it comes to day-to-day operation, waste measurement is the key to being profitable and efficient.

The idea is simple: track enough data to build benchmarks, create averages, and then translate your recipes and portion sizes to reflect that. You might sell 225 burgers one day, 250 another, and 275 another, creating an average of 250 burgers. I would suggest prepping 260 daily. If a raw burger weighs four ounces, then you would prep 1,040 ounces of beef. If you found that you had 20 ounces consistently left over you would stop prepping the extra 5 burgers—time and money saved.

Tracking everything in weight makes it easier to translate across purchasing and production. Over time you will see when you are overproducing. Combine that with correct portion sizes (plate waste), and you should find yourself buying and making the right amount of food.

When the school in Buffalo started weighing, staff became more conscious of throwing away food and conscientious about what they were making. They went from a cafeteria that served over 80% processed foods and sold 50% snack foods to an entirely ‘made from scratch’ menu with 73% of sales coming from entrées.

And guess what? The school made money on its lunch program for the first time.  Reducing the waste that had been built into their system freed up resources to invest in quality. Now, they operate at the same food cost while producing more flavourful, nourishing food that has increased participation.

Greg Christian is Founder of Beyond Green: Sustainable Food Partners. You can learn more about this project via a documentary short available on YouTube called “More than Food: Redefining a School Food Program.”

Photo credit: Beyond Green: Sustainable Food Partners

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