Americans waste a lot of food. According to a report by The Guardian, about 50 percent of all produce in the U.S. is tossed (about 60 million tons a year). And as any planner who has seen entire chafing dishes full of food go untouched knows, meetings and events are often guilty of contributing to this problem.
To help tackle this issue, and help groups cut back on food waste they produce, the World Wildlife Fund, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association launched a Zero Waste Menu program. The effort aims to reduce food waste in the hospitality industry, recruiting a handful of hotel catering programs to develop sustainable best practices for their specific properties and serve as models for hotels throughout the world.
Group dining and buffets can present particular challenges to those trying to reduce food waste, since it's a shame to end up with too much leftover food, but from an event planner's perspective, a far worse problem is for those at the end of the line to end up with empty platters. So those participating in the Zero Waste Menu effort have developed a handful of tactics to help thread this needle.
"Through using the best practices we developed with AHLA and WWF, and better engineering both menus, our goal is to reduce post-event food waste to between zero and 5 percent," explains Dolan Lane, executive chef of Red Star Tavern in Portland, Oreg. Part of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland, a luxury boutique property with 8,000 square feet of meeting space in the center of the city's hip downtown, Red Star Tavern was one of 10 hotels selected to launch Zero Waste. Its catering program's offerings of rustic dishes and craft beverages served as a foundation for Zero Waste's goals of "cross-utilization of product, better estimates on serving size, and dishes/presentations that minimize food waste," as Lane puts it.
For example: Rather than discarding day-old bread, Lane's team now incorporates it into the Bread Pudding French Toast. Scraps from the beets used in the Instagram-ready Roasted Heirloom Beet and Pear Salad are then pickled and used in the bar's house Bloody Mary. Vegetable ends and trimmings are pureed and used in the restaurant's Celeriac and Apple or Roasted Butternut Squash Soups. Uncut produce is turned into cold-pressed juices like the Morning Zinger of carrot, apple, and ginger. The list goes on.
Zero Waste Menu was formally launched following a three-month pilot program, in which Lane and his team evaluated the current food sustainability practices they had in place and conducted a series of "road-map meetings," tracking waste (by weight and volume) and setting a baseline for reducing it.
"It was important to understand and measure both the pre- and post-service waste," says Lane. "Yellow bins captured 'Pre-Service' waste, such as kitchen prep and scraps, and green bins capture 'Post-Service' waste, food that had been given to guests, via plate or buffet, that could not be re-used."
WWF provided the tools and equipment to help with the tracking and made introductions to local shelters where prepared food that was left over could be distributed. By the end of the three-month pilot, pre-service waste had already been reduced by 15 percent -- before the Zero Waste Menu had even formally launched.
Lane gives another example of how his team worked together to identify simple-but-impactful areas of opportunity: Bread by request, rather than given to every attendee automatically.
"Over the course of the trial, dough waste was reduced by about 22.5 pounds per week, we saved roughly 65 pounds of butter each month, and a portion of Pedro's time - our bread maker - was able to be re-allocated to new duties," says Lane. "We'd classify that as a success."
Now that the Zero Waste Menu has been formally launched, Lane emphasizes it is cutting back on food waste without creating more work for planners. They simply request the Zero Waste Menu when booking their event at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland and Lane's team takes care of the rest. Though he adds that those who would like to get more involved, say by selecting a local charity to receive the excess food, can do so.
"The program also helps us to stay relevant in a very waste-conscious society," Lane explains. "The Zero Waste menu is reflective of what we do every day at Red Star Tavern: working thoughtfully with local farmers and seasonal produce to serve delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. We're proud to be able to offer a catering option that will cut down on and bring awareness to food waste, and to be among the pilot hotels proving this initiative works."