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A Rotten Sin

Food Waste in Greenville Restaurants

By Spencer Bennington

A Bowl Full of…Yuck!

Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, CA

Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, CA

The Rose Bowl: for college football fans, an event holding special significance as the oldest bowl game in the history of the sport. For the rest of us, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium is just another giant coliseum that can seat 90,000 screaming fans. But no matter who you are, sports fan or not, you need to understand something important about this particular stadium. Every single day, the people of this country waste enough food to fill it. Twice.

Think about that.

Imagine the gridiron covered in eggshells. A heap of banana peels and chicken bones in every seat. Enough moldy bread heels to stack all the way to the rafters, enough half-eaten burritos to shadow the goal posts, enough pizza crusts and mushy peaches and slimy mushrooms and…

Well, you get the point.

The fact is, this is food you and I are paying for (many times over), food that is causing irreparable damage to our environment, and it’s food that could feed the nearly 49.1 million food-insecure people in this country.

There is good news: here in Greenville there are organizations trying to cut down on this atrocious waste of resources. This analysis looks at some of these organizations, along with chain- and locally-owned restaurants in our area, to get a better sense of how much food we are wasting—and how we could put it to better use.

The Basics: Why Food Waste is a Travesty

Food waste costs everyone money, over and over again. Think of it this way: a farmer grows the food, a wholesaler buys the food, a restaurant purchases the food to prepare and sell as a meal. Though each step in the food’s journey should result only in slight price increases to allow for profit margins, costs associated not with food, but with waste are added, every step of the way.

Farmers must sell their best produce at a higher cost to account for vegetables they leave in the ground, those which don’t meet the ridiculous quality standards of wholesalers. Restaurants, meanwhile, must price their meals higher to account for all the food wasted, produce that never hits the table.

These might just sound like economic absolutes, but consider the fact that once this food is wasted and discarded by the restaurants, taxpayer dollars ensure it is removed by sanitation services. So while fine diners pay for the experience of a chateaubriand, the general public foots the bill for the maggot-filled, stinking piles of garbage which are bussed to the landfill. In fact, according to Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, roughly three cents of every dollar spent in a restaurant covers food in the trash.

The monetary concern is only one of a few. Many people don’t realize that once all this food waste gets to the landfill, it doesn’t just break down and absorb into the soil. Because of the lack of light and oxygen, food waste in landfills emits enormous amounts of methane. So much, in fact, that it contributes roughly 10 percent of all greenhouse gases linked to global climate change from sources within the United States.

The most alarming concern regarding food waste is just how many mouths it could be feeding. In Eastern North Carolina alone, there are roughly 150,000 people who don’t know for sure where their next meal is coming from. According to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, about a third of these individuals are children. It feels redundant to say that food waste should not be tolerated on ethical and moral grounds.

The Good News

The issues of food waste and the needs of the hungry are not being ignored in Greenville. I spoke with managers from corporate-owned Olive Garden, Logan’s Roadhouse, Outback and Chipotle, as well as locally-owned Basil’s, Starlight Café and Christy’s Europub about their approaches to reducing food waste.

It was no surprise to find that most of the corporate establishments participated in some sort of donation program. In the past five to 10 years, the issues of food waste and sustainability have significantly transformed companies like Darden Corporation (owners of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and others) and Chipotle especially. “We participate in the Harvest Food Donation Program,” said a manager at Chipotle. “The program partnered our store with a local homeless shelter and they come pick up our excess food every Thursday and Sunday so it doesn’t get thrown out.”

Chipotle is not the only corporate franchise participating in this program in Greenville. Olive Garden donates leftover soup and breadsticks to Joy’s Soup Kitchen, a pairing that resulted through the Harvest program. Outback also donates to Joy’s, and to the Center for Family Violence Prevention. When I asked about the logistics of donating, the Chipotle manager laughed. “It’s so easy! We were already recording and weighing any food that we had to throw out for inventory purposes, and if everything is dated like it should be according to the health code, the whole process takes, like, ten minutes. All I do is log the donation in our computer system and sign a form for our records. Simple as that.”

Even though the process isn’t labor intensive, there are corporate restaurants like Logan’s Roadhouse that don’t participate. “We try to enforce daily habits that prevent waste,” a manager at Logan’s told me. “We prep food multiple times a day and make things like soups fresh daily, so we rarely experience waste.” While proper inventory and preparations are certainly integral to a well-maintained kitchen, many may find this kind of attitude regarding food waste, given the documented realities, unacceptable. It’s easy to look in the trash on any given night at a restaurant and see “little to no food waste”—but it’s hard to stare down the average 150,000 pounds of garbage generated by every restaurant every year and call it minuscule.

Spreading the Word

Given the programs in place to help reverse food waste, companies in the restaurant industry have no reasonable excuses for not combating food waste to the best of their abilities–especially larger corporations with armies of bean-counters and PR people at their disposal. But my research found that many local restaurants simply didn’t have the information or infrastructure in place to deal with their wasted food. Some folks, like Jeremy Spengeman, owner of Basil’s, have even been met with resistance when trying to donate food.

“I remember when Hurricane Floyd hit hard near the coast [1999], the power was out here and I was going to lose a lot of inventory. So I decided to hit the kitchen by myself with just a gas stove and candlelight. I must have made around a hundred pizzas just to keep the cheese from going bad. So when I was finished I tried to donate it all to the Red Cross for the relief efforts, you know? And you know what they told me? ‘We’re good now but maybe tomorrow, huh?’”

It’s an absurd story, and revealing of an old tragedy: good people trying to do the right thing and getting road-blocked. Toby and Kelly Boutilier, head chef and floor manager of Starlight Café, in a telephone interview, told a similar story of rejection. “We’ve tried [to donate prepared food to food banks] a few times over the years,” they said, “and it just seems like there’s always some restriction or regulation that holds us back.”

Spengeman and the Boutiliers, like many other local restaurateurs, understand well the issues of food waste, but were unfamiliar with solutions like the Harvest program. Locally run restaurants, however, can take advantage of their inherent greater flexibility in managing waste.

“In the past four years we’ve been lucky enough to acquire our own farm,” the Boutiliers said, “and, since then, any spoiled produce goes to our compost heap to fertilize the next set of crops.”

Some materials – meats, bones, salted food and fats – must be excluded from the compost pile because of the tendency to attract animals. But even some of this waste can be reused in creative ways, for instance, “There’s a local woman that comes by the kitchen and collects our shrimp peelings to use in a dog food that she makes herself and sells at the umbrella market.”

On a larger scale, local restaurants including Starlight Café, Basil’s and Christy’s Europub recycle their cooking oil to the Fuel for Schools program. The oil is refined and converted to a biodiesel which fuels retrofitted school buses in the region.

Next Steps to a Less Wasteful City

Across the board, restaurants have no good way to reuse or recycle post-consumer waste, that is, food that has been served and not eaten. Because of health hazards, this food cannot be donated, and, as mentioned, composting can be risky.

Waste, recycling and compost bins at University of Washington. Internet photo.

Waste, recycling and compost bins at University of Washington. Internet photo.

It is not, however, impossible. Greenville could benefit greatly from an initiative like this one at the University of Michigan, dedicated to picking up post-consumer food waste and transporting it to a site large enough to compost it, but secured from attracting wild animals. Post-consumer food waste can also be used for certain livestock like pigs or goats, but only if there is an organized collection and distribution service in place. Diners can also help, by not leaving their leftovers on the table, either by eating it all or packing it up to take home.

Of course, Greenville (and the United States at large) could follow suit with France, and introduce legislation that would impose a hefty fine for food waste. In the past couple of months, a bill, spearheaded by Guillaume Garot, a member of the National Assembly of France and Junior Minister of the Food Industry, makes it illegal for French supermarkets to throw away any edible food. Markets that do not comply by donating or composting the organic material can face fines of up to $82,000.

While the Food Bank for Central and Eastern NC is an invaluable organization, it does not have in place a networking infrastructure comparable to the Harvest Food Donation Program. To make a significant impact in reducing food waste, local restaurant owners and managers and maybe an entrepreneur or two must begin a dialogue regarding food waste, donation procedures, and creative ways to clear this issue from our plates once and for all.

What are your ideas or experiences? Please share them in the comments below. The managers of our local restaurants are eager for good ideas of how to work together with and benefit our community.

Spencer Bennington is an adjunct composition professor and freelance writer.

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One Response

  1. Suzanne Stotesbury says:

    While not entirely related, I like that the to-go containers at Christy’s can be composted when I’m finished with them.

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