New Strategies for Recapturing the Value of Hotel Food Waste

By Pete Pearson Director of Food Waste, World Wildlife Fund | December 02, 2018

I get the question often: why does World Wildlife Fund care about food loss and waste? People joke, do we need to feed surplus food to animals at the zoo?

Actually, donating surplus food to animals and zoos does happen in many cities, but food waste affects wildlife in a much deeper way. In fact, it affects every living animal on the planet, especially humans.

All by itself, estimates show that food waste is responsible for 8% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than half of what's emitted by cars, buses, trucks, airplanes and ships around the world. It also represents a colossal waste of water, land, and energy.

Food waste is also a huge waste of money and resources. Reducing waste is a perfect example of how more sustainable business practices can sustain people, planet, and prosperity all at the same time.

Yet the food waste debate often focuses on how to keep waste out of landfills. That's a worthwhile goal, but it's not the best way to save money-or the planet.

As one hotel executive put it bluntly to me: "When we donate food to shelters or food banks, we're not saving costs. When we donate wet waste to pig farms, we don't improve the bottom line. When we compost more, we don't become more profitable. When we produce less food for an event, we're more efficient and it affects profitability."

Indeed, when it comes to food waste, prevention should be everyone's top priority. Not only could it save your hotel property money, but it will also prevent valuable resources-land, water, energy, fertilizer-from being wasted.

Of course, donating safe excess food has immense social value and should continue to be a core practice for all foodservice and retail businesses, but we can take a big swing at preventing waste and still have plenty of food to keep food banks well stocked. Moreover, donating surplus food also serves a measurement function by allowing a hotel to understand what they waste and reduce surplus food.

Fortunately, hotels can take a few simple steps to prevent waste. Key strategies include collecting data to identify routinely overstocked and wasted items, redesigning menus to make more complete use of ingredients, and communicating and collaborating with suppliers, guests, and staff.

In partnership with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, WWF conducted research in a diverse group of hotels-small and large, big brands and independents-to see why and where food was being wasted and how different interventions could yield the best results. The final product is Hotel | Kitchen, a toolkit and website that outlines clear and practical steps that hotels can take to start reducing waste-and saving money-almost immediately.

One of the first things we learned shouldn't be surprising: Buffet lines are a big culprit contributing to food waste in hotels. Fortunately, we found that solutions for reducing waste on this front are possible and effective. One strategy to reduce overproduction for buffets is to catalogue all uneaten food returning from the buffet. At Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland, for example, a sous chef noticed significant amounts of potato salad left in buffet serving vessels and on plates. He asked his executive chef and program lead to consider decreasing that item. For future events, the chef cut down the portion size per guest, which resulted in observed reductions in post-service food waste, with no impact on guest experience.

Breakfast buffets can be a large source of wasted food, especially cold cuts, cheese, and salmon, which have high economic and environmental value. Based on observations of hotspots for food waste on their breakfast buffet, chefs and servers at Hyatt Regency Orlando prototyped an "a la minute" concept to serve these high value items, specifically their cold cuts and cheeses. The kitchen prepped 18 cheese and charcuterie plates, kept 17 in temperature-controlled storage, and placed one on the buffet with a conscious consumption cue prompting guests to request a plate from a banquet server. Thirteen out of 18 prepped plates were ordered, keeping the rest of the plates safe and ready to be used elsewhere or to be recovered for donation. This has significantly reduced the amount of these high value items the property is tossing and is having some positive impact on food costs.

Because better design plays such a large role in food waste reduction, WWF engaged IDEO, a human-centered design firm, to prototype strategies for buffet waste reduction at Hyatt Regency Orlando. IDEO and property staff tested various food waste interventions in the event sales process, guest messaging, use of technology, and buffet service standards. Staff were enthusiastic to engage on the topic of food waste and eager to propose opportunities for reduction within their operations. After interviews with meeting planners and event attendees, and three days onsite at a property, IDEO developed the "Buffet 2.0", with 17 user-friendly solutions ranging from chafers with adjustable bottoms that keep trays looking full to using more ubiquitous conference apps to low-waste menus. A complete list of tactics is included on page 61 of the Hotel | Kitchen toolkit.

In fact, developing menus designed to minimize waste both in the kitchen and after service has the potential to decrease food waste by 50% based on results from a demonstration performed in one corporate kitchen. These results prompted the adoption of similar waste reducing menus by the Washington Hilton. The hotel has found that clients and employees alike are engaged around these menus, with the low-waste menu items not only reducing waste and associated costs, but also proving to be a differentiator for the Sales Team. Some of the most effective characteristics of low-waste menus include:

  • Using mostly low-waste ingredients such as potatoes, greens, and berries (page 52 of the toolkit features a ranking of produce in terms of how fully they can be utilized and other low-waste menu items are listed on page 49);
  • Completely using all elements of an ingredient (e.g., roasted squash seeds, pickled watermelon rinds);
  • Setting portion sizes at 1.3 pounds per person since the average person consumes around 1.2 pounds per meal; and
  • Cross-utilizing ingredients across menus options (e.g., serve sausage for breakfast and include as a topping on pizza for lunch).

Once strategies for prevention have been exhausted, hotels should then look to donation and as a last resort landfill diversion.

As a business, your property may qualify for federal tax deductions when you donate food to local organizations that are registered non-profits with the federal government. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 increased tax incentives for donation, as the law allows for businesses to claim a cost basis of donated inventory and half of potential profits if the inventory could have been sold for market value.

It's important to note that hotels can only claim a tax deduction for food that has not already been sold for profit, or considered to be property of the client per banquet contract language, therefore, food that has been prepared as part of a banquet event order or possibly purchased for an event, but gone uneaten can be donated, but may not be eligible to claim as a tax deduction. To ensure you can claim a tax benefit from food purchased for an event, but not prepared, incorporate language into your contracts that designate your property's ownership of any unprepared food.

Consider a hotel that buys vegetables for $20, which when prepared would sell for $80. The expected profit would be $60, which equates to an enhanced deduction of $40. The formula can be found on page 37 of the Hotel ? Kitchen toolkit. If a property can make this donation once a week for a year, it would equate to $2,080 in total deductions. If it could occur daily with leftover ingredients intended for use at large banquets, then it would equate to $14,600 tax deduction per year, though capped at 15% of the property's taxable income.

It's important to have appropriate documentation to obtain a tax incentive for your donation. It often makes sense to establish multiple partnerships that can fill different needs for your property. For example, one donation partner may prefer weekly pick-ups of only bread or other staple ingredients, while another organization may be nimbler and able to come day of, to pick-up overproduction from large events with little notice.

Lastly, before sending food to the landfill, where it does the most harm to our climate, hotels should divert the food to livestock or, at least, to a facility that can convert that waste into compost, fertilizer or energy.

When food is composted, while some greenhouse gases are emitted during decomposition, precious nutrients can be returned back to the soil in the form of compost providing multiple forms of environmental benefits including reduction in landfill methane emissions, reduction in synthetic fertilizer use, and improved soil health.

If you source from local farms or suppliers, it may be worth asking about opportunities to divert food scraps back to the farm or to livestock. You likely can't find any tax deductions (yet) but imagine the story you can tell your guests!

Ultimately, it all comes down to a simple point: so much more goes into our food than we realize. And for a lot of great reasons, from environmental to economic to social, we need to realize the true cost and value of food again.

Mr. Pearson As Director of Food Waste at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world's leading conservation organization, Pete Pearson leads work on food waste prevention and food recovery, helping businesses understand the vital intersection of agriculture and wildlife and habitat conservation. At WWF, Pete works towards promoting and integrating food sustainability initiatives - his expertise includes zero waste programs, local food hub development, sustainable agriculture, annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting and retail sustainable sourcing. Mr. Pearson's most recent endeavor at WWF has been co-pioneering the Hotel Kitchen initiative with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, to address the issue of food waste within the hospitality industry. Pete Pearson can be contacted at 202-293-4800 or Extended Biography retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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