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What’s the latest in zero-waste?

With awareness growing about the scope of food waste in America, foodservice operators are ramping up zero-waste efforts—and coming up with more culinary-focused solutions. It’s estimated that 40% of food produced in the United States is wasted, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Although an increase in composting has redirected some of this food waste from landfills to on-site gardens and farms at a number of operations, noncommercial chefs are re-evaluating food scraps for their menu potential.

University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., has a longstanding composting program in place, with several nearby facilities transforming waste into biofuel. But the facility nearest to campus no longer accepts food waste, as it’s too close to the residential halls, says Robert Landolphi, assistant director of culinary operations for the 30,000-student college. So last semester, he challenged his chefs to collect and repurpose food waste into menu items.

“We asked the staff to save all their food waste over a three-day period and come up with ideas for using it,” Landolphi says. One chef from Nepal created pakoras stuffed with scallion ends, while another turned cucumber peels into a chutney to top chicken burgers. But the biggest hit were the Tater Tumblers, he says. The kitchen blends a mashed potato mix with kale stems, chopped cauliflower and broccoli ends, carrot peels and other veggie scraps. Ingredients left over from the omelet bar may be added, too, including ham, bacon and shredded cheese. The mixture is formed into tots and deep-fried, then served with a dipping sauce.

“The students went crazy for them,” Landolphi says. “They make a good late-night snack instead of wings or nachos, and the food cost is very low.” Now he’s putting together a food waste manual and cookbook, with instructions for conserving food scraps and recipes for repurposing them.

At UConn, plastic buckets are positioned on the prep line for scraps, but education also is an essential component of the zero-waste initiative. Seed pockets from peppers, for example, have to go into the compost bin, while leftovers such as cooked rice and mashed potatoes need to be blast-chilled before being repurposed into arancini or potato doughnuts.

Chris Ivens-Brown, chief culinary officer for Eurest, agrees. “We have receptacles in every kitchen, but you have to teach cooks to salvage scraps and think about an end use before they’re tossed into the pails,” he says. Building awareness is key; mushed up food waste doesn’t repurpose well.

Slashing waste and costs

Eurest’s parent company, Compass Group, announced a commitment to reduce 25% of its food waste by 2020, and Ivens-Brown has gotten his B&I teams off to a great start. One of his most effective weapons is a dehydrator.

“We take grapes, beets, carrots, mushrooms, olives and other produce that is starting to go bad and dehydrate it,” he says. The dried fruits and vegetables are then ground into intensely flavored powders that are added to pasta dishes, salad mixtures and sauces. Ground, dried orange peel has become a favorite flavor enhancer.

At a Compass-led Stop Food Waste Day this past April, every station at every account offered a zero-waste recipe created by one of the company’s chefs. Cauliflower and broccoli stem au gratin, carrot top chimichurri and panzanella salad were a few of the choices. Not only did the initiative cut food waste, but it also cut food costs. “If you reduce food waste by 50%, you can lower food costs by 1 to 2 points,” Ivens-Brown says.

Tackling food insecurity

Hunger is reaching far into the K-12 and college populations, and operators are starting to tie zero-waste efforts into feeding food-insecure students. At University of Washington in Seattle, the catering department partnered with the campus food pantry to create soup night, says Kara Carlson, purchasing and project specialist for UW Dining. “This is an event where catering saved perfectly good food scraps that would otherwise hit the compost stream and turned them into a soup served at the pantry,” she says. “The night was a huge success and more nights are planned for the future.”

Most colleges have student-run food pantries on campus, but in some cases, there’s been a disconnect in procuring leftover food from dining services. Now, many FSDs are trying to forge a connection.

“We currently work with Food Lifeline and donate leftover food to the city, but we would like to keep some of that product on campus for students who may be struggling with food insecurity,” Carlson says. “Currently, there are logistical problems because our pantry does not have refrigeration or means to reheat food.”

In the meantime, University of Washington is using technology to expedite the process, partnering with a student group that designed an online donation program.

“Our foodservice managers can log in and record any leftover products we have available for donation,” says Carlson. “Food pantries on campus and in the community can log on and claim that product, then students are responsible for safely transporting the product from our location to theirs.” The program was launched in April, and Carlson is eagerly awaiting the results as it grows.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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