According to a report I read in a National Restaurant Association newsletter, each year “consumers, businesses, and farms spend $218 billion on food that goes uneaten. Of the 63 million tons of food wasted each year, 16 percent occurs at farms, 2 percent at manufacturers, 40 percent at consumer-facing businesses, and 43 percent in consumer homes.”
We all talk about sustainability, yet how many of us actually do what it takes to be mindful of our waste? That goes for food, plastic, or, really, almost anything we spend money on and don’t use. I think about this every time I go to the grocery store and watch people walk out with 20 plastic bags of groceries. I think about this every time I go near the Trinity River, or any creek or stream, and see plastic bags blowing from the branches. I think about food waste when I walk by the prepared food section in grocery stores. Even at 30 minutes before closing time, most of the cases are filled to the top and garnished as new.
Chefs who are militant about food costs and waste will not toss out a strawberry with a touch of mold on it. They’ll trim it and use it appropriately. They’ll also put leftovers, fish and meat trimmings, and old bread to good use by making stocks, desserts, and employee meals.
I decided to poll 25 food service businesses to find out what they do to combat waste. I heard back from five. You can draw your own conclusions from the lack of participation. I took it as a sign they were not doing anything constructive to reduce waste.
However, I was inspired to learn that Mariel Street and company have a plan at Liberty Burger. All of the napkins and packaging are tree-free and compostable, the take-out bags are re-usable, and they recycle all packaging and empty bottles. The Lakewood location contributes to a compost pile at the gardens located at Paul Quinn College. Lakewood purchases the vegetables grown at Paul Quinn and uses them on their sandwiches and burgers.
I’m sure that takes a lot of time and money to remain true to those standards. I can’t help but think how much of a difference it would make in Dallas if a third of the fast casual places practiced half of these ideas.
Anastasia Quinones is still settling in to her new post at Oddfellows. She writes to say:
We are currently in the process of saving all of our eggshells and coffee grounds for compost. I am a board member for La Bajada Garden in West Dallas, along with Elizabeth Dry. She will be making some pretty rich soil with it!
Now that’s the spirit. I’m sure Elizabeth Dry would be happy to hear from any restaurateurs who would like to donate the same or more.
Jon Alexis of TJ’s Seafood Market and Grill has always been clear on his efforts to sell sustainable seafood. He goes one step further by adding:
TJ’s is very proud of producing basically zero seafood waste. Bones are scraped to make burgers. Heads and bones simmered to make stock. Collars are deep-fried as an appetizer. Seafood populations are overfished enough. We make sure to use every ounce of fish we take out of the water.
Mark Wootton of Garden Café took time out of his busy day to type a thoughtful answer:
Naturally we compost the majority of our waste produce for the garden.
I’ve explored donating leftovers in the past but it ends up not making sense in any quantifiable degree, for us at least. Our leftovers on any given day come out to 1 to 4 pounds. You lose the benefit to the greater good as soon as you use the hard resources needed to package (boxes) and transport (gas) that small amount to a shelter. Even then, with an amount like that of precooked food, you’d have to work outside the official process. Like showing up outside of a shelter and handing things out of your car. Some services dissuade this for reasons based out of security and consistency.
[It] supremely upsets me to know that prepared foods from grocery stores are thrown away rather than donated. Would venture a guess that the vast majority of the “40% consumer facing” waste referenced is due to pre-prepared foods at grocery stores, not waste from restaurants. That’s not to say that the restaurant industry does not greatly contribute nor have a need for better efficiency. However, one only needs to visit a few grocery stores a half hour before closing to see the incredible amount of perfectly good food going to waste. I’ve feigned ignorance and asked countless employees in many locations what will be done with the leftovers. Trash. Every time. My concern is not contradictory to the previous point when you consider the amount involved. But, it could be considered unfair and anti-business to expect the grocery stores to handle it. There’s a gap, maybe, for a non-profit to organize and make the collection and distribution of all these leftovers efficient. If, they can convince the corporations that they won’t be liable. There is a lot of cross talk regarding liability for donating prepared foods to the homeless. I think that’s horseshit, and no one could be held liable, but I haven’t really researched it.
Sometimes due to poor planning and management I lose good raw meat to time. Nothing I can do then other than be terribly sad.
Wootton brings up some upsetting but sadly true facts. Most of the restaurants and caterers I’ve spoken with over the years have told me they have trouble giving away leftover food. The large shelters have waiting lists of people trying to donate and they have to turn food away. For some, the only other alternative is to drive around and hand it out.
I asked Mabrie Jackson, the director of public affairs for H-E-B/Central Market to explain their sustainability efforts. She reports:
Thank you for reaching out about this issue. H-E-B/Central Market is absolutely committed at the highest level to combat hunger across Texas and Northern Mexico. We currently donate more than 31 million tons of produce, meat and dairy products to 17 food banks in Texas and 6 in Northern Mexico. These facilities then distribute the product through their extensive networks.
This is a significant quantity of food that stays out of the local landfills. Some food is often recycled/composted in some markets (Austin, for example). We train our partners on a regular basis to reduce food waste because it is the right thing to do, and it has a huge economic impact in the retail grocery business.
The most critical aspect of food donation is food safety, and this concern is often overlooked in sensationalized stories about food waste. Our highest priority is to ensure that the food we share is safe to eat and is edible.
Hope that helps…food safety is truly so critical to this conversation.
I hope this is the beginning of a meaningful conversation in Dallas. I’d love to hear from anyone out there with ideas to combat hunger and reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in dumpsters. We need people to follow the example of Gary M. Gluckman, the founder and owner of The Grocery Clearance Center in North Oak Cliff. His store carries name brand goods and fruit and vegetable that don’t look perfect. As if that matters to a hungry person.