When it comes to waste, "food recovery is still a blip on our radar," says Ron VAnce, chief of the materials conservation and recycling branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Two years ago, the EPA decided to do something about it and started the Food Recovery Challenge. The competition recognizes foodservice operators who are finding innovative ways to reduce the amount of food that goes into the waste stream.
In February, the EPA announced the winners of the 2014 Food Recovery Challenge awards. Twenty-one U.S. foodservice operations, including universities, hospitals and stadiums, were recognized for their efforts—many of which were implemented without sizable investments in equipment or technology. Additionally, one company and government agency were also honored as “endorsers” of food waste recovery.
“It wasn’t about who spent the most money, but about the manner in which the winners educated people with the entire spirit of food recovery,” says Vance, who oversees the Food Recovery Challenge with a staff spread across 10 regional EPA offices.
It’s also not about “checking the boxes to complete an annual sustainability report, but about communicating and broadening the message,” says Vance.
Here are four non-commercial operations that won or received an honorable mention for their efforts.
Source reduction award winner: University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine)
Dan Dooros, associate vice chancellor of student affairs at 30,000-student UC Irvine, says the campus has been on a “zero waste” quest for several years, both within the university’s seven residence halls and in eight foodservice operations.
“[It’s been] a culture shift for a campus our size,” Dooros says. “We place an emphasis on communicating what students can accomplish by handling the small things. The big challenge is measuring your progress and communicating it back to the students you are working with.”
After the last of UC Irvine’s dining facilities reached zero waste and 95 percent (or higher) waste diversion in 2013, Dooros says, “we realized there were additional steps [we could] take to maximize our sustainability efforts.”
Since then UC Irvine’s zero-waste initiative reads like an impressive report card:
- 549 tons of waste converted through anaerobic digestion (where bacteria convert organic compounds to biogas in an environment without oxygen) in 2014, up from 508 tons in 2013.
- 76 tons of food source reduction (purchasing, storage and handling) in 2014.
- 1.48 tons of food donated since 2013 via UC Irvine’s partnership with Food Donation Connection, an international organization that helps coordinate the donation of prepared food from foodservice providers in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom.
“Every day we’re trying to do something a little better,” says Jack McManus, the director of hospitality and dining services at UC Irvine, who oversees three dining commons and more than 20 separate retail outlets.
Some of the strategies and tactics that have made a difference include:
- Trayless dining. “We did not know what the impact would be,” McManus says. “The first night that we took away trays we served about 150 pounds less food and are trying to keep an eye on how to do this even better.”
- Weigh the Waste events. Student leaders are named green captains, and sort food waste and recyclables into separate bins. The program now includes a Beat The Waste competition—where the pounds-of-waste per student is calculated and students compete to see who can produce least amount of waste.
- Smaller portions. At the front of the dining facility, UC Irvine’s staff encourage guests to ask for smaller portions, or sample items before ordering a full portion. “Often a guest might throw an item away if they don’t like it,” Dooros says.
- Back-of-the-house efficiency. Color-coded bins with signs in English and Spanish alert staff to where various types of waste should be placed.
- Batch preparation. “We are always making sure we’re ordering the correct amounts of food, and rely on an ‘overlap system’ with the ingredients used,” says Tyson Monagle, sustainability coordinator for Aramark, which manages the dining program at UC Irvine. “Chicken is a great example because there are so many ways to prepare it. If we don’t use the chicken intended for enchiladas on a Tuesday it becomes chicken Marsala the next day.”
- The use of anaerobic digestion. “We partnered with Waste Management Inc.,” Monagle says. “Food waste is converted into a slurry by the local water reclamation district.” Not only do the bacteria remove contaminating compounds from the effluent, they also produce green energy in the form of biogas.
- Constantly communicate zero-waste initiatives. “It’s a culture shift for a campus our size,” Dooros says. “We place an emphasis on communicating what students can accomplish by handling the small things. The big challenge is measuring your progress and communicating it back to the students you are working with.”
Even with all of these changes, Monagle says one of the challenges is making sure there is consistency and accuracy within the system. “We find that continuous training
is required,” Monagle says. “But luckily our employees are very passionate.”
College and university award winner: Worcester State University
A year and a half before Massachusetts’ state-wide ban on commercial food waste went into effect in October 2014, Worcester State University in Worcester, Mass., had already begun diverting food waste by shipping it to local farmers for use as soil supplements.
Today, Worcester State sends 250 pounds of food a day to be composted. The university’s daily waste recovery protocols work like this: Food waste is moved to toters—barrels with wheels—and picked up every seven to 10 days by a third-party hauler. It’s then dispatched to a composting facility and later transported to local farms that use it to enrich their soil.
“It’s a challenge to shrink that waste on a daily basis,” says Richard Perna, director of dining services for Chartwells at Worcester State. “We have a little competition among our people to see if they can one-up each other in reducing food waste.”
No step is too small to be considered important. For example, Perna says, Worcester State’s dining program saves about $10,000 a year due to greater efficiencies in food production.
Steven Bandarra, sustainability coordinator at Worcester State University, says although the waste iniative remains a work in progress, the university has made steady gains.
Some of the strategies and tactics that have made a difference include:
- Sharing food waste with farmers. Before composting became the norm for food waste recovery, Bandarra says his staff used 5-gallon buckets to collect food waste. “Everyone was charged with bringing buckets down to a loading dock, and eventually the waste was transported to a hog farmer,” he says.
- Implementing trayless dining. In 2008, Worcester State adopted waste reduction tactic, which limits the amount of food customers can take with them at one time. “So maybe you don’t put the dessert on your plate right away,” Bandarra says. “By the time you finish eating, you realize you don’t want the dessert, thus reducing waste.”
- Preparing food in front of customers. Chartwells uses action stations and other forms of just-in-time food prep in Sheehan Hall, its 650-seat dining room. Perna says it makes portion control easier, because chefs are dishing up the entrees instead of allowing students to help themselves.
- Instituting Project Clean Plate. Dining services offers students incentives, such as a free food or beverage item, to encourage them to eat everything they take. Table tents on dining tables explain the incentive program, while also educating about the importance of curbing food waste.
- Using Trim Trax. This proprietary program, developed by Chartwells’ parent company, Compass Group USA, tracks and weighs food waste. Kitchen employees place food trimmings such as cucumber peels, apple cores and melon rinds into marked containers. The program measures the amount of edible food that is left on the trimmings, with a goal of getting employees to trim food more carefully. “It’s a challenge to shrink that waste on a daily basis,” Perna says. “We have a little competition among our people to see if they can one-up each other in reducing food waste.”
- Buying a pulper and dehydrator. Last fall, dining services spent $35,000 on a pulper— which pulverizes food waste into pea-size particles—and a dehydrator, Perna says. Once the food has been crushed, the particles are then placed into the dehydrator to have the moisture excised before it is transferred to bins.
College and university award honorable mention: Wellesley College
When Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., decided to embrace a more ambitious food recovery program in 2012, they started by making a few minor changes.
“We originally opted to start small by collecting kitchen waste for composting,” says Cherie Tyger, foodservice director for AVI Food Systems, the Warren, Ohio-based contractor that oversees foodservice on the 2,275-student campus. “We started food recovery in one dining hall to make sure we could abide by local health department regulations.”
A year later, the college expanded its food recovery effort to include recovering post-consumer waste for composting. To make it easier for students to compost, waste recovery bins for food scraps are positioned in front of the dining halls. “Students scrape food into 28-gallon bins and the staff takes it out to larger dumpsters,” Tyger says. “We fill the bins three-quarters to the top. We bag and weigh the food, and a waste hauler we partner with picks it up and takes it to a facility that eventually makes [compost].”
The college now composts 1,000 pounds of food per week, with 20 percent of the waste recovery involving kitchen scraps. “We had to make sure kitchen staff knew to put scraps into waste collection bins,” Tyger says, “and that this waste could only be kept out for a short period of time before it needed to be transferred to cold storage per orders from the health department.”
Moreover, she says students “had to be coached about what they could and could not put in compost bins.”
In addition to the composting efforts, here are several other successful tactics they used:
- Preparing food to order. This helps reduce waste in and promotes transparency and credibility, Tyger says. “We think that of instead of hiding food preparers in the back room, it’s vital to prepare food out in front of customers,” she says. “Cooking in a made-to-order fashion also helps foster portion control.”
- Implementing trayless dining. This has been in place for about eight years. “It’s unbelievable the waste reduction that this produced,” she says.
- Building food waste awareness. Last month, Wellesley launched a program called Project Zero Waste, in which dining services takes one week’s worth of waste and compares it to waste from a prior week. For example, if students save100 pounds of food in a week’s time, compared to the earlier week, Wellesley College will donate 100 pounds of food to a local food bank.
Other sector facility award honorable mention: Parkland Medical Center
When Hospital Corporation of America, the parent company of Parkland Medical Center in Derry, N.H., launched organization-wide sustainability initiatives in 2012, the foodservice unit at the hospital “jumped on the bandwagon,” says Peggy Connors, director of food and nutrition services at Parkland Medical Center.
A year later the hospital began composting. Thanks to the staff injecting greater discipline into food preparation and improving kitchen efficiencies, Connors says the hospital has diverted 6,000 pounds of food waste from the 86-bed facility since 2013.
“I really thought that composting production waste would be an easy win for us,” she says. “We only compost production waste—the food that comes off plates in the dining room is not composted.”
Here’s what the medical center did to put the plan into action:
- Make composting easy. Connors says the hospital has a composting bin at the loading dock and a bin in the kitchen that food preparers can access. A local hauler comes once a week to pick up the food waste—about 100 pounds a week—to be composted. The recovered food is eventually routed to a farm in Hamilton, Mass. The medical center does not compost in the summer months, she says, due to concerns about the accumulation of insects that might compromise the hospital’s sanitation policy.
- Donate leftovers. Recently, Parkland Medical Center began donating food to a local soup kitchen. Connors says because that effort is so new, it is too early to measure the pounds donated.
- Use the Healthy Hospital Initiatives (HHI) as a guide. Connors says HHI has helped to steer sustainability efforts across all departments, including foodservice. “The initiatives engage our leadership, and the result has been less waste, healthier food, smarter purchasing and leaner energy,” says Connors.
- Create a “Meat Challenge.” To reduce meat consumption, the foodservice team participates in an HHI-sponsored program to reduce the amount of meat purchased weekly to prevent overproduction.