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Putting Food Waste to Good Use

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By Judith A. Stock September 2013 Sustainability

Food waste is the No. 1 material that goes into landfills across the country today, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And, until a few years ago, food waste wasn’t high on most restaurants’ priority list.

However, the National Restaurant Association reports that recycling has become business as usual for 65 percent of restaurant operators.

Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta, says that working in the restaurant business has shown him the impact that can be made if food waste is diverted from landfills.

“From day one at Miller Union, composting has been a part of our business model. We found a company that removes the materials and takes it to a large-scale composting site outside of the city.”

Organic material such as fruit and vegetable scraps, fish and shells, meat and bones, eggshells, and coffee grinds are all composted.

The restaurant’s food-waste program also includes animal and vegetable fats that go to a bio-diesel processing and recycling plant. On an average week, the restaurant composts 2,000 pounds of organic matter.

The benefit, according to Chef Satterfield, “is knowing that you’re doing the right thing and not cutting corners to save money or contributing any unnecessary waste to a landfill.”

The restaurant trains all personnel on how to manage food waste using a system of easy to learn, color-coded waste receptacles. In addition, the staff is encouraged to inform patrons about the restaurant’s sustainable practices.

At Angus Barn, on a sprawling 50-acre site in Raleigh, North Carolina, owner Van Eure says, “Everything has a second use. If it is biodegradable, it goes into a dumpster that’s picked up by a company that uses the food waste for mulch.”

As a beefeater’s destination, Angus Barn always has leftover meat from the kitchen plus meat from patrons who aren’t members of the clean plate club and don’t walk out with a doggie bag.

With her propensity to avoid waste, Eure came up with a plan to donate the leftover meat to Carnivore Conservation, an organization that takes in abused wildlife including lions and tigers.

“Restaurants can easily supply food to animal rescue groups,” explains Eure. At Angus Barn, the dishwasher is instructed to save all the leftover meat and ribs and put it into a bucket. The meat is frozen, and then delivered to the animal rescue group weekly. Some nights the catch is as much as 10 buckets.

When customers leave leftovers on their plates, Eure says, “We tell them their leftovers are going to the lions and tigers.”

There’s also a notice in the menu stating that any leftover meat will be delivered to the rescue group, which lets the patrons know the restaurant cares about the larger community.

For large events at Angus Barn, where there is a high potential for food waste, Eure calls on the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to pick up unused portions, which in turn is delivered to the local Food Bank

At another Atlanta eatery, Ecco, which features seasonally inspired European cuisine, the restaurant joined the Green Foodservice Alliance in 2009, formed by the Georgia Restaurant Association, to work toward sustainability.

Steve Simon, co-founder and partner at Fifth Group Restaurants which owns Ecco, says that recycling programs had been expanded to all of the group’s restaurants by 2010.

As Simon points out, “Anything biodegradable that was formerly destined for the landfill is now source-separated at each restaurant into receptacles that are picked up four times per week and hauled to a local facility that produces compost from organic materials.”

In a given month, each of the restaurants yields approximately 10,000 pounds of food, bones, scraps, and biodegradable matter that goes to the composting facility—and that equates to about 50 percent of their former waste stream.

The key to Ecco’s successful recycling program, along with the other restaurants owned by Fifth Group Restaurants, is a highly trained chef and reliable kitchen help.

“The chefs are trained first then they train the rest of the staff,” explains Simon. “Chefs are at the epicenter of food in the restaurant, so they have the best opportunity to impact the food-waste recycling program.”

Food-waste recycling is an important part of a well-oiled sustainable restaurant program—one that can impact positively on the greater environment.