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Reduce food waste, help the planet

The third-largest source of greenhouse gases is food waste, so local and state activists are educating chefs and restaurant workers on how to shrink the amounts scraped off plates and into the garbage.

Each American tosses out more than 400 pounds of food a year, says sustainability author Steve Schein, and a small restaurant averages 5 to 50 tons of food waste a year.

Carbon is created in “pre-prep,” growing and transporting food, and then 60 million tons a year is wasted yearly in “post-prep,” says Schein, who is a presenter of a free Workshop called Food Service Professionals: Enhancing Restaurant Profit & Sustainability by Reducing Food Waste.

The workshop will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at the Jackson County Health & Human Services Building, Union Creek Room, 140 S. Holly St., Medford.

Schein says it’s not just the atmosphere that’s impacted by food waste.

“Seventy percent of biodiversity is being threatened because of food production, and it requires up to 2.5 million new acres of grassland annually in North America,” according to the World Wildlife Fund, for which Schein is a consultant.

Partnered with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Portland Metro, Schein will be “training trainers” who will instruct restaurant owners and staff. Schein, of Ashland, is the author of “A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership: The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews.”

Schein suggests restaurants hold a “waste audit” and go through the contents of the dumpster to analyze what should have been saved and used.

He will train kitchen staff to rethink buffets, maybe making them continental, with hot food to be ordered. Condiments in ramekins shouldn’t be given, he notes, unless asked for. For burgers, ask customers if they really want lettuce, tomato and onions.

His pointers include:

n Buy produce that’s not cosmetically perfect. It’s usually tossed by markets. Vet your suppliers for knowledge of food waste reduction and prevention.

n Use smaller pans in cooking. Adjust portion size to what gets consumed. French fries are an example of big servings that can’t usually be consumed and get tossed.

n Adhere to “best practices” on temperature, sanitation. Reduce inventory of perishables. Avoid standing orders from suppliers.

n Encourage take-home of leftovers. Indicate low-waste items on the menu.

n Avoid plastic containers. Explore recyclable containers the customer can bring back for reuse.

n Move away from supersizing. Instead offer “second helping free” or “bottomless refills.” Note: guests consume one to 1.2 pounds of food per meal and most don’t ask for seconds.

n Use low-waste ingredients. Artichokes and lima beans are high-waste, while squash, turnips, spinach, potatoes, asparagus are low-waste. Put low-waste icons on menus, similar to the heart-friendly icon.

Food waste is not only the No. 3 contributor to greenhouse gases, but it is mentioned in 20 of the top 100 in Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Proposal to Reverse Global Warming,” which is the guidebook for Southern Oregon Food Solutions, a group co-hosting the workshop and helping teach area restaurant owners and chefs.

“It’s not just about what’s scraped off plates,” says member Julie Caldwell. “It’s about not buying more than you can use and buying locally where you can. It’s about prep and post-prep, including moving unwanted food to compost or the homeless, which restaurants here are starting to do.”

The DEQ has invited Southern Oregon Food Solutions to join in a pilot project with Ashland Climate & Energy Analyst Stu Green to reduce food waste among area restaurants, Caldwell says.

“It’s a very complex subject, and we’ve spent a year learning about it,” she says. “Our role is to inspire and educate people to take action against greenhouse gases by cutting food waste.”

Several Ashland restaurants are in the vanguard of food waste control, says Caldwell, including Falafel Republic, Standing Stone, Simple Cafe, Pie & Vine and Sesame Asian Kitchen.

A big upside is that you increase revenues but, “As a human being, my approach is I don’t want to waste food and enlarge my carbon footprint,” says Falafel Republic owner Sam Jackson. “I don’t want to fill up the trash can faster than I need to. I watch batch sizes and make them smaller and more often for slower months or weekdays. It’s fresher and doesn’t go bad and you increase quality.”

Elaine Blatt, senior policy and program analyst at DEQ, which is providing technical support for such workshops, notes food waste “has a profound impact” on the environment, ending up as methane, which is 86 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Commercial kitchens, Blatt says, tend to trim off more from vegetables than necessary and often don’t store food properly, allowing it to go bad. They have “lots of leftovers” and need to learn better purchasing and menu planning, such as using leftovers for soups or grinding it up for other dishes.

“For Americans, food is relatively inexpensive, and the percent of our budget has been decreasing over the decades, so it doesn’t hurt our pocketbooks that much,” says Blatt. “People are busy. They buy food and think they’re going to eat it, but their schedules change. So we’re working on: buy food for one or two people. Use less packaging. Local governments are going to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting, getting the word out to households as we roll out the state campaign.”

To register for the workshop or for more info, go to foodwastestopswithme.org.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings{ } Falafel Republic owner Sam Jackson does prep work in the back kitchen.{ } Falafel Republic is one of several Ashland restaurants working to control food waste.