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Mount Holyoke College, the private gender-diverse women’s college in Massachusetts, reopened its foodservice operation in August serving only 150 students, down from its typical student body of 2,200.
“But the college wanted to make sure those students got a great dining program, and they also wanted to keep as many of our foodservice staff employed as possible,” explains Dining Services Manager Shawn Kelsey. “We opened half of our food stations and made sure we had a lot of offerings. The students got a great experience, but we knew food waste and diversion was going to be an immense challenge.”
It was a dilemma faced by foodservice operations around the world. Reopening with lower volumes and changed service styles meant production sheets and historic operations were no longer as relevant. You used to serve thousands from buffet-style service and now you’re serving hundreds from grab and go, or staffed buffets, or curbside pickup or some other socially distanced solution. What do you cook and how much? It was, in many ways, like kitchens were starting from scratch.
As we all adjusted to these challenges of 2020, something notable rose to the surface in foodservice: measuring food waste was no longer just a way to cut costs and be more efficient, it became a key tool for learning and adapting to the new normal. What a kitchen wasted was one of the few real-time data points it could use to understand what was working and what was not as volumes dropped and service styles changed dramatically.
As Barbara Hartman, nutrition and foodservice chief at Martinsburg VA Medical Center put it: “Tracking food waste during COVID-19 is essential since the status quo has been altered and we want to maintain good business practices.”
Reacting quickly to food waste data
The Mount Holyoke team has a food waste tracking system. At the end of the first week of service for the fall semester, the management team reviewed their food waste data from their tracking, showing what was wasted and why.
“We were able to pinpoint immediately that overproduction was much higher at the grill station and the kosher station,” Kelsey says. “Way above what we had at the other stations.”
They quickly switched from a full menu of pre-prepped items at the grill station to cook-to-order service. This cut the station's overproduction immediately, and the freshness of cook to order was more appealing to diners.
The kosher station was more complicated.
Pre-COVID, diners would go to any station they liked with no restrictions on movement and dine-in service only. That stopped with the pandemic: now, students enter in one door and walk in a straight line past each station and exit at the end with take out only. The kosher station, it turns out, was at the end of the line.
“By the time students got there, they already had two full to-go boxes,” Kelsey explains.
Again, the data was shared with the management team, who decided to try something unique. They shared kosher recipes they were considering adding to the station with students via a QR code. Students gave feedback, and through this “test kitchen” staff gauged what would be popular at the station, and it gave the students a reason to wait until the last station to get served, while ensuring kosher diners always had options.
“You cannot effectively reduce food waste until you know how much food waste you have in the first place,” Kelsey says. “Weighing your waste stream not only gives you a baseline for improvement, but it also tells you the what, where and when about your food waste.”
The waste at the grill station has since dropped by a weekly average of 54%. The kosher station has done even better, dropping by 78%.
They also identified high-waste items, like overproduced rice, which they began repurposing at the wok station.
“It’s easy to use leftover rice there, but it wasn’t until [food waste tracking] showed us the amount of rice we were wasting that we realized it was a problem,” Kelsey notes.
Instead of being composted, broccoli stems and other vegetable trim now go to the wok station or juice bar. Overall, Mount Holyoke has reduced its food waste since August by 49%.
Increasing awareness of food waste
It’s not just Mount Holyoke staff whose awareness of food waste increased because of COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the world has been given a masterclass in the fragility of our food system. Bare grocery store shelves greeted shoppers last March. News images showed food deliberately being wasted from farms that had no means to get the food to consumers. And headlines have given us grave reminders of the growing hunger pandemic growing alongside COVID-19.
This has not been lost on consumers. The 2020 Global Food Trends Report conducted by communications firm Edelman, uncovered five key takeaways for all foodservice and beverage brands. The first: “People expect food & beverage companies to step up and make a difference in the here and now; food waste and access being the key priorities.”
In addition, state legislators are increasingly calling for action. The most far-reaching state-level food waste legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 1383 in California, mandates a 75% reduction on organics to landfill by 2025—requiring companies to take serious action to reduce their food waste. Enforcement efforts begin this time next year.
The public and regulators are demanding food waste reduction, and foodservice organizations who are already tracking food waste are ready. They are also finding not only more sustainable and cost-efficient kitchens—but operations that are more resilient to upheaval like COVID-19.
Andrew Shakman is CEO and co-founder of Leanpath, a mission-driven foodservice technology company that helps foodservice kitchens cut their food waste by 50% or more. Leanpath operates in 40 countries and since 2014 alone has prevented over 61 million pounds of food from going to waste. He can be contacted at [email protected].