Wasted Food: Leaving Nothing on the Table
By Katarina Tesarova Vice President of Global Sustainability, Las Vegas Sands Corp. | May 12, 2019
Sitting in a restaurant after a lengthy deliberation, we finally made our selections and ordered our meals. After a few minutes, the appetizers arrived. We pulled out our phones to capture these culinary masterpieces. They proved to be a treat for the taste buds as well as for the eyes. We finished them all but for a few pieces. The plates with leftovers disappeared and soon we were presented with the main course. With a few more "foodie photos" worthy for Instagram, we dove in.
Similarly, to the appetizers, these dishes were also exceptional, but after only a few mouthfuls, our stomachs started to send the signals of satiety. We stopped about halfway though, conscious of our waistlines and dessert plans. Once again, the plates with remnants were whisked away. The situation repeated with the dessert - pictures, a few bites of deliciousness, but this time, most of the food remained on the plate as our bellies begged for mercy.
And once again the leftover vanishing act followed. Every day, this ritual is re-enacted thousands of times in restaurants across the country, contributing to a largely hidden issue of food waste.
Waste Not, Want Not, Why Not?
At Las Vegas Sands, we are not immune to this challenge either. With more than 300 restaurants and extensive banquet operations in the U.S., Singapore and Macao, we have had the opportunity to test many food waste reduction ideas.
But let's start at the beginning by untangling the impacts associated with food waste. From the economic standpoint, we pay for food waste three times: the first time is in the price of food that we purchase, the second time as labor needed to process the food and, finally, the disposal cost to get rid of the food waste. From an environmental standpoint, the growing of food is resource intensive from water use to carbon footprint of agricultural operation and transportation.
And then there are methane emissions from food waste disposed in landfills. From a social standpoint, there are millions of people that go hungry at the same time as millions of tons of uneaten food is thrown away.
Tough Nut to Crack
In our operations, food waste comes from three primary streams: prep waste, pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste. Prep waste is waste generated in the process of preparing food. It usually consists of trimmings, scraps, spoilage, peels, rinds, shells, pits, etc. Pre-consumer waste is food that is prepared, but never gets served. Post-consumer waste are leftovers from food served to patrons.
The inefficiencies in the process can be attributed to several challenges. One broad category is customer expectations. No hotel, restaurant or integrated resort wants to be known for not providing enough or running out of food. But it goes even beyond guest expectations. At all of our properties, we provide meals to our Team Members. We can serve 4,500 meals or more in any given day to our Team Members. It is part of their benefit package and as such, it comes with expectations of quality and selection of dishes. The enticing array of food choices can result in food waste, especially for Team Members with shorter breaks.
Also, despite reminders of only taking as much as one can eat, the communication messages around food waste do not seem to have a lasting effect. Upon initial change, most people go back to their old behaviors within a short period of time.
Post-consumer food waste is not the only area that is difficult to address. Different sets of challenges arise with pre-consumer waste. In banquet operations, there are last minute cancellations or no-shows, but this perfectly good prepared food cannot always be easily transferred somewhere else where there is a need. Sometimes local regulations on prepared food are the issue, but more often, it is the lack of infrastructure like hot boxes and blast chillers or labor costs that stand in the way.
Prep waste can be reduced by sourcing produce that is already peeled and chopped, but in reality, the waste has not decreased, it was only moved further upstream. Lastly, building the business case for food waste reduction is also stubbornly challenging, as it is not easy to link food cost to food waste in large culinary operations.
Wasting No Opportunity
Influenced by years and years of cost reduction initiatives, chefs are often the first line of defense against food waste. However, their motivation goes beyond dollars and cents. They have a deep appreciation for sustainability as their intent to provide the best quality food is so inevitably linked to the state of natural resources. In an effort to reduce food waste, especially in our Team Member dining rooms, our chefs consolidated kitchens, streamlined cooking practices, increased coordination among kitchen staff to facilitate ingredient sharing and came up with smart recipes that use unserved food from previous days in a dish for the next day.
For example, today's unused white rice becomes tomorrow's fried rice. They looked into ways to portion food in banquet trays to minimize leftovers. They rely on technology such as blast chillers to prepare food in bulk and deep freeze it. Some even become accustomed to weighing food scraps in the kitchens prior to disposal to harness the power of data to understand where the waste is generated in the kitchens. They graciously endure one waste audit after another to gain insights to where future opportunities may lay.
On the other side of the spectrum is a responsible diversion of food waste. Depending on local infrastructure, we either send the food waste to a local pig farm as a feed stock or utilize food digesters to break it down to nutrition rich water that can be safely disposed into the waste drain. The success rate of any diversion strategy hinges on the level of food waste separation and sorting. Sorting of waste in kitchens under the watchful eyes of chefs tends to be easier than separating of post-consumer waste which often involves the cooperation of many additional people.
Often times, restaurants and banquet operations may not have space for proper sorting containers or time to go through large volumes of food waste coming back to a kitchen in a very short window of time.
Between the efforts to reduce the amount of food waste in the preparation process and proper sorting and disposing of leftovers lies the land of opportunities for prepared, but unserved food. We refer to it as food rescue. Rescuing this high-quality, untouched food and directing it to those in need is not possible without the right internal and external partners, because time is not on our side. The banquets and culinary teams need to identify potential rescue food very quickly, and either transfer it to hot boxes or freeze it and contact one of our non-profit partners to coordinate a pickup.
This all happens behind closed door while thousands of meals are being served and plates are cleared in a highly orchestrated manner. Some food items such as pastries, deserts or even sandwiches from large events are transferred to the Team Member dining rooms to much delight of our employees, but opportunities for food rescue go beyond banquet operations. Hotel room minibar contents that are close to expiration date can be donated as well. We even piloted a small project of donating prepared food to an animal shelter, which is very challenging not only because of strict nutritional standards but also the canine residents' preferences.
Food for Thought
Does diversion of food waste or even food rescue eliminate the need to reduce food waste? What role does behavioral science play in the food waste discussion? Do smaller plates and serving utensils or changing the order of dishes in the buffet line impact how much food we take and ultimately throw away? Does posting of calories make us more conscious of our serving sizes? What messaging works better – explaining the environmental impacts or appealing to social values? Which is better – the carrot or the stick approach?
In the world of limited resources, should we focus our efforts on downstream improvement of food waste diversion or upstream food waste minimization? How can we further the process of transporting unused leftover food to those in our communities that could benefit from it? How can we accurately quantify the amount of food waste and consequently calculate the business case? What technologies are successful in driving down food waste? How do we best measure the impact of waste reduction initiatives and how do we tease out which ones are successful? How can we best share the lessons learned within the hospitality industry and learn from each other?
There are still more questions than answers in the food waste conundrum, but we are on a mission to find out. Nonetheless, next time you go to a restaurant, please be conscious when ordering your food. Keep in mind that we will try to exceed your expectations on the plate, but also behind the scenes.
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