June 13

Restaurant Food Waste Is a Crisis and an Opportunity


Leanpath Discusses the Food Waste Crisis and How Restaurant Action Can Benefit Profits and The Planet.

From poor menu management and food safety regulations to seasonality and unexpected customer behavior—food waste has been normalized in the restaurant industry. 

As food service professionals, we have a responsibility to take action where we can, and we can’t afford to ignore that restaurant food waste is a huge contributor to what has become a global crisis. 

To learn more, we spoke with Sam Smith, Senior Director of Marketing at Leanpath—a B Corporation software company helping kitchens with restaurant waste management. 

A Glimpse Into the Global Food Waste Crisis

“About a third of the food produced in the world goes to waste, and about a quarter of that waste comes from the food service industry—we’re talking billions of tons of food a year,” Smith told us. 

Considering all the resources and energy needed to get food from farm to fork—it’s socially, environmentally, and economically unsustainable to have such a large portion end up in a landfill. 

“It’s a big social crisis. You know, we produce enough food in the world to feed everybody. We just waste too much of it,” Smith shared. “And it’s an environmental crisis—we simply can’t ramp up the current food system to feed everybody and protect the planet. The food system is too inefficient right now.” 

According to Feeding America, the largest charity in the United States working to end hunger, around 34 million people in the US face food insecurity. 

With the 119 billion pounds of food that goes to waste each year in the US alone—130 billion meals could be made, and $408 billion saved. That’s more than enough to ensure no one experiences food insecurity.

At the environmental level, our food system already surpasses unsustainable levels. 

“Food waste is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” Smith said. “If it were a country, it would rank third just behind the US and China in greenhouse gas emissions.” 

In 2018, more food reached landfills than any other single item in our everyday trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Rather than returning nutrients to the soil, food in landfills rots and produces methane—a greenhouse gas more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than CO2. 

On an economic level, food waste generates about $940 billion in losses globally, and restaurants directly see this financial burden of food waste. 

“The food service industry operates with notoriously thin margins,” Smith said. “Particularly now with the cost of food—you can’t afford to pay for that food, bring it in-house, use labor to prepare it, and then have it go to waste. So it’s a social, environmental, and financial crisis.”

Ways to Decrease Restaurant Food Waste

“Food waste is a global crisis, but it also represents a big opportunity for the food service industry,” Smith shared.  

Smith mentioned Project Drawdown, an organization focusing on practical ways to keep the global temperature from rising to catastrophic climate change, “They’ve identified food waste prevention as the number one tactic. Not just because food carries such a big carbon load but because we know how to address food waste. We know how to stop it from happening.”

The U.S. EPA lays out actions organizations can take to prevent and divert food waste—they call it the Food Recovery Hierarchy

6-stages to preventing and managing food waste:

1. Source Reduction

2. Feed Hungry People

3. Feed Animals

4. Industrial Use

5. Compost

6. Landfill

Since the top two efforts are by far the most effective and should be the first steps to managing food waste—we’ll focus there.

Source Reduction
Source reduction is another term for prevention, actually stopping restaurant food waste from being created to begin with. 

“When you stop creating food waste to begin with, you stop contributing to the damage that upstream food waste entails, and you leave food in the food system for people who need it,” Smith said. 

Food waste prevention is a highly reasonable act anyone working in a food service kitchen can take with proper guidance, awareness and effort. 

Smith suggested getting started by familiarizing yourself with the three-step approach, “Target-Measure-Act,” presented by the UN-affiliated group, Champions 12.3. 

  • Target: Set targets and ambitions for managing food waste. 
  • Measure: “What gets measured gets managed,” start measuring your food waste to identify opportunities to take action. Publish the results to build awareness and monitor your progress over time. 
  • Act: Once you have insights from measuring food waste, implement preventative strategies to decrease waste. 

Additionally, Leanpath provides automated tools for food service kitchens to follow the Target-Measure-Act formula, reducing 50% or more of a kitchen’s food waste. 

Feed Hungry People
The second tier in the Food Recovery Hierarchy is to donate food to hungry people before it becomes waste. 

No matter how careful you are—you’ll end up with more than you need at some point. 

For example, think of unexpected events where you had to throw ingredients out— like a weather event or a cancellation. Where did the perishable food you thought you’d use go?

In those cases, it’s great for restaurants to build a network of options to donate their food rather than throwing it away. 

You can contact local food banks or non-profits working with communities facing food insecurity. 

Alternatively, there are apps like Too Good To Go that allow you to offer menu items at a discount to move through products.

The Benefits of Restaurant Food Waste Prevention

If you need more motivation than ending world hunger, preserving natural resources, and sustaining global temperatures, you’ll be happy to know your restaurant will also see some direct benefits! 

When you know where your waste comes from, you can reduce your spending by dialing down food purchases and keeping that revenue in your pockets — or increase staff wages. 

According to a report published by Champions 12.3, for every dollar companies invest in food prevention, there is a $7 return.

Beyond saved revenue loss—the pandemic unveiled how disrupted and inefficient the food system is. Consumers are more aware of food waste issues and appreciate sustainability initiatives. Company-wide efforts toward food waste prevention create a great branding opportunity to drive more business. 

“Consumers expect something to be done about food waste and sustainability, and they’re rewarding organizations that do that work and publicize that work,” Smith shared.
So while there is a crisis at hand, there is an opportunity to be had for restaurants to make a difference and see immediate benefits. 

If you’re ready to take action and stop throwing money away—start building a two-prong approach to preventing and diverting waste. 

Meet as a team and see where you can work together to reduce waste at your restaurant. Start reaching out to food banks and other local charities. You can check if Feed America has a food bank near you or check out Too Good To Go. 

If you’d like to take your food waste prevention to the next level, visit Leanpath to learn more about their software solutions. They can help you measure and gain insights into your food waste so you can truly make a difference. 

About the author


Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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