by Jen Ede, Development & Marketing Associate, Chefs Collaborative

Chefs: at the end of your shift tonight, head into your walk-in and throw half the contents away. Producers: walk straight past your stall at the local farmer’s market and place a quarter of your vegetables directly into the dumpster. Eaters: when visiting a restaurant, tell the server not to bother bringing the second half of your entree. It’ll save time, embarrassment, and a nasty smell in the back of your fridge if it goes directly into the trash.

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We wouldn’t dream of doing this, right? No, but the fact is, we do, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. These scenarios fairly accurately illustrate how we as a society deal with excess food. From the fields to distribution centers, to supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains, to your home and into your garbage – and then out to the landfill – the supply chain that brings us an abundance of food also lets huge amounts of food fall through the cracks. Namely, between 25 and 50% of it, depending on how conservative (or optimistic) you’d like to be with your guestimate.

The realities of food waste have been even more on my mind lately, given both my shanghai job at Chefs Collaborative and my own personal Depression-era sensibilities. At the Collaborative, we talk a lot about how to effectively build sustainable supply chains that benefit all stakeholders. Addressing what happens to food waste is as important to a sustainable food system as addressing the supply. This is an issue that many in our network are actively grappling with. What if we brought the issue of food waste to the forefront of our discourse when we talk about a sustainable food supply? What if, alongside “where do you source your meat and your produce?”, consumers learned to ask “how does your restaurant deal with food waste?”, and chefs asked farmers and distributors the same question?

I just finished reading “American Wasteland”, in which the author, Jonathon Bloom, argues that food waste is not as simple as teaching people to clean their plates. But, I believe that addressing food waste begins with the consumer and that businesses change their practices – for the worse or for the better – to give consumers what they want.

On the farm, produce that is irregularly shaped and not appealing to consumers or is too fragile to ship is left to rot. (See Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, for a prime example of how one highly-shippable, highly symmetrically-shaped vegetable nearly killed him as he drove along the interstate in Florida.)  Distribution results in another 10-15% loss of even the hardier produce, then still more is thrown out after hitting grocery store shelves.

On the other end of the food production spectrum are the “value-added” meals that consumers get when dining out from fast food joints, buffets, caterers, and restaurants. 4-10% gets thrown out by kitchens, 17% of meals are thrown out untouched by customers, and 55% of leftovers will stay on the table after the customer leaves.

Clearly the point to make is, there are opportunities to minimize waste – from the farm to the kitchen to the table.

Meanwhile, minimizing food waste is essential for restaurants – for those seeking to manage food costs and especially for those choosing to make sustainability a part of their focus. Chefs, you are not only the tastemakers, you are also the educators who can help customers understand the true cost of their food and the impact of the choices they make.

Here are some ideas for educating your customers and taking steps to manage food waste:

1. Manage customer expectations. Take the opportunity, whether it’s on your menu or in conversation with your patrons, to help them understand the steps you’re trying to take to minimize your food waste.

2. Have a plan for excess. Using everything is already a tried and true practice in restaurants for managing food costs (vegetable peels and stems for soup and sauces, fish and meat bones for stock, meat and fish scraps for terrines, etc). Whether it’s composting, donating to shelters in need, or re-purposing into other dishes, try to keep as much organic food waste* (*that is, peels, vegetable and fruit matter, etc.) out of the trash as possible.

3. Adjust portion sizes and recipes. If you notice that there is an entree or side dishes that are habitually left half-eaten, consider limiting the size or making them optional altogether.

Food waste needs to be a part of the conversation about sustainability, because after all, as much as we are what we eat, we are also, I’d argue, what we throw away. The above suggestions are just three ways you can minimize food waste. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section or by visiting us on Facebook and Twitter.