Meals of Mercy

Meals of Mercy

There is no reason for restaurants to let good food go to waste. Donating it is the right thing to do and those who do say that the rewards are rich and deeply satisfying.

Like the brier and the rose, food waste and restaurants are bound together, so tangled that separating one from the other seems impossible. From day-old bread unsuitable for guests to overproduction of a menu special, most kitchens grapple with excess food that is still fit for consumption. Estimates are that 10% of food at quick-service chains is thrown away even though much of it is 100% edible. Independent restaurants tend to generate less edible waste but they accumulate enough to save and put to good use.

“Donating this food is a small thing that can have such a huge impact for people who are hungry,” says Laura Abshire, director of sustainability, policy and government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association. “Restaurateurs are extremely busy and have a lot on their plates. Donating edible food is a wonderful and nice thing to do but operationally, it is not necessary. It can easily be thrown out, and often it is, because that seems like the most-efficient solution. There is a lack of awareness about the process and we’re working to change that. As cornerstones of the community, it makes sense for restaurants to get the food to an agency that needs it,” Abshire says. “It can be a win, win, win.”

Stephanie Simpson, a partner in Blackwood BBQ in Chicago, acknowledges that both of its two locations used to toss out perfectly good food. “Obviously from an operational standpoint we do all that we can not to waste food but there always is some. Before we had a formal program, we had a donation opportunity here and there but mostly we threw it out and never felt good about that,” Simpson says.

In January, Blackwood began working with Zero Percent, a Chicago-based company that coordinates restaurant food donations. “After we met with [Zero Percent founder] Raj, it felt like a total no-brainer,” Simpson says, describing the process as “100% turnkey — not much work involved at all.”

Blackwood’s menu is fairly simple, mainly consisting of three kinds of smoked meat and sides. Leftover beef brisket and pork are used in side dishes and in items that are on the breakfast menu. Simpson says that chicken, side dishes and bread, still entirely edible but not earmarked for guest use, are carefully packaged according to HACCP guidelines, labeled and placed in the freezer. Twice a week in a scheduled pick-up, a driver from a food bank swings by to pick up the leftover largesse. “We’re a for-profit business but when we can give back, we do. This is a steady way for us to support the community.”

Zero Percent was pretty much inspired by bagels — or more precisely the wasting of them. Founder Rajesh Karmani, studying for a PhD in computer science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, was a regular at the Einstein’s near campus. He asked one day what happened to leftovers; learning that they were pitched in the trash, he began to build a business in his head, marrying entrepreneurial instincts with his computer savvy. U of I was one of his first clients and it continues to use Zero Percent to distribute unused food.

“We act as an online donation marketplace, connecting those who have food to donate with nonprofits that need the food,” Karmani explains. “In most restaurants, there is the will to do the right thing. We help on the back end so it’s easy for them.”

Waste is a pet peeve for Beth Montecalvo, marketing manager for Lincolnwood, Ill.-based Food for Thought. “There’s so much of it in restaurants and so much need,” she says. Donating extra food generated by the company’s mix of noncommercial clients located in universities, corporate offices and museums, seemed fraught with problems. “The work, potential liability issues, regulations, insurance, delivery, handling — it all seemed really difficult until we met with Raj,” she notes.

Since the partnership began, Food for Thought’s donations have accounted for 2,400 meals served to the hungry. “We all have the same objectives — to help within our communities and have positive impact. It’s easy to say supporting the community is one of our pillars. But with our donations, we truly do walk the talk. Food gets to the people and you can see your impact.”

How To Start

“Let nothing be wasted,” says Jim Larson, program development director for the Food Donation Connection,
a Knoxville, Tenn.-based organization that connects restaurant food with charitable organizations that are more than happy to have it. Last year, its facilitated donations totaled 36 million pounds of food, most of it from large chains.

“A lot of restaurants tend to think that the small amount of food they may have on any given day is not worth donating. But small amounts add up,” he says. “Once a restaurant starts collecting food and holding it in the
freezer for a few days until it is picked up, they are surprised by how much they’ve gathered.”

Larson offers simple ways to stop throwing away edible food and redeploying it to a food-donation program:

  • If you have an existing relationship with a non-for-profit feeding organization, aim to schedule regular pick-ups so that it becomes part of your everyday business.
  • A web search will help to locate nearby nonprofits that have feeding programs. Alternately, there are companies that can assist.
  • Take advantage of the tax savings. This will make it a financially smart move.
  • If you don’t presently work with an organization, run a test pilot. Determine what can be donated by monitoring leftover food within a specific timeframe, noting volume as well as variety. Find freezer space that can be designated to hold the foods for a few days until it is picked up two to three times a week. Figure out how it will be packaged and ensure that procedures for proper holding are in place. Get the staff involved, too — they will feel good about being part of the donation process.

EPA Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy

Estimates are that as much as 60% of a restaurant’s waste is food (usable and scrap) and the Environmental Protection Agency says there are lots of ways to reduce the amount of it that ends up in landfill. It has released the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy with recommendations from the most to least preferred options.

  1. Source reduction: evaluate how to reduce waste before it is created.
  2. Feed people: donate to food banks and soup kitchens.
  3. Feed animals: send food waste, especially scraps, to farms for use as animal feed.
  4. Industrial uses: possibilities include providing fats and oils for use as fuel.
  5. Composting: recycle food, turning it into a form that can be used as a soil additive.

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