At Charlotte Country Day School in North Carolina, the dining team creates very little waste, according to Executive Chef Jim Stouffer. When there is leftover food from the kitchen, it is reworked into the menu or composted in the school’s garden.
Stouffer accomplishes this by keeping a careful eye on the food, from the time product arrives to whenever it goes out to the students.
“I can't portray enough that my philosophy for food sustainability starts when the food enters the building," he said. "I truly believe hands-on management of inventory is the foresight that every chef should concentrate on if sustainability is one's concern.”
Stouffer says his philosophy aligns well with the Doing Good platform from Elior North America, parent company of Lexington Independents, which manages foodservice at the school.
“I think that the Doing Good Platform is essentially trying to work with what you have, what comes through the door, and maintaining little to no waste,” he said. “I think that it does align. It's simplistic, it's honest. It’s basically observing and being more conscious of the product that’s coming through the door, preserving the product, prepping the product, cooking the product, and then managing the waste or the product that you never cooked.”
In addition, this strategy means the team is careful not to over-prep in its effort to prepare enough food.
Over-prepping is an issue Stouffer quickly sought to address when he started at Charlotte Country Day School.
“I just worked with the different stations and showed them where minimal prep work is a little bit better than over prep work. It was difficult for them to trust me, but then, after they saw it all pan out, then it was fairly successful,” Stouffer said, “With just a little effort and planning, you really shouldn’t have any food leftover.”
Stouffer noted that much of the waste he’s seen throughout his career is when food isn’t held properly in the coolers or watched carefully while cooking. Stouffer said that each afternoon, he goes through the coolers to see how much food, if any, is left over.
Of course, some waste is inevitable and when it happens, leftovers get reincorporated into the menu.
“For example, today, we had on our menu arancinis. ... This was risotto that was served almost like two-three weeks ago. We took the risotto, two or three weeks ago, after it cooled down, what we didn’t use. Then we scooped it, formed it into a ball and then froze it. Then, today, took that out, and just dusted it with a little bit of corn starch, and then deep fried it and served it with a little sauce,” said Stouffer.
Keeping staff engaged
Getting staff engaged in food-waste reduction can be challenging, said Stouffer, who noted that asking staff to participate in extra tasks can be a difficult feat. However, wasting food after spending time and effort preparing it is not exactly gratifying for staff, he noted.
“Why would you want to prep for all this food and then half of it turns to waste?” he said. “I think reducing the individuals' prep load but making sure that there consistently right there with the amount of food that they do need for service, is where I’m being more proactive as opposed to them prepping a whole bunch of food and then potentially throwing that food away.”
Now, tasks like composting are second nature for the staff. In addition, the team uses tools like production sheets to keep track of how much food to prepare. Stouffer said these sheets have a lot of variability to them, but the diners’ tastes are pretty predictable.
Creating a vegetable-centric menu
Another unique aspect of the K-12 school’s dining program is the way in which the team approaches plant-forward fare.
“Every station has an array of vegetables, and we order fresh vegetables, we have locally sourced vegetables. Whether they are a cooked vegetable product, or whether it is a raw vegetable product, I would say the majority of what we do is vegetable centric,” said Stouffer.
One way to successfully offer plants in K-12 is by really listening to the demands of the customer base, according to Stouffer, who says his team tends to stay away from meat analogues and instead serve vegetables as the center of the plate.
“It’s just not in the demand. It’s mainly they just gravitate towards a nice roasted broccoli or a cauliflower, with a different seasoning that we make from scratch here. It just sort of developed organically, honestly. They just requested it, so we kept putting it out there,” he said. “We do the black bean burgers and the veggie burgers, but they’re just not consumed like enough to where it’s something we would continue going down that route.”
He noted that stations focused on vegetables tend to be busier than even the burger and fries station.
In terms of sustainability goals, Stouffer says the team hopes to incorporate more produce from the school’s garden into the menu.