Top Waste Strategies for Restaurants and Food Distributors In A Pandemic

The COVID-19 quarantine has presented unprecedented challenges for the restaurant and food distribution industries. Almost overnight, restaurants have gone from packed dining rooms to empty buildings. Curbside pickup and delivery options have helped ease the blow of shelter-in-place orders, but there is still an excess of food waste.

Food distribution services are experiencing challenges with school closings, massive reductions in the hotel business, and cafeterias shutting down. The International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) projects the food distribution industry will lose $24 billion over the next three months alone. However, there are still ways that restaurants and food distributors can reduce food waste and stick to sustainable practices that customers seek.

Waste Reduction for Restaurants

In any food industry right now, food waste is an obvious challenge. Restaurants have a few unique opportunities to not only keep doors open, but to ensure that purchased food doesn’t go to waste.

Food Waste:

Like most restaurants across the country have done, shift to online ordering, contact-less purchase, curbside pick-up, and delivery to ensure some level of revenue and distribution of food.

  • Offering curbside pickup and delivery is a lot simpler than signing up for services like UberEats or Grubhub. Use your social media presence to let customers know about new offerings.

Change to a limited menu to reduce purchasing and risks of overbuying

  • By offering a limited menu, you can easily dial in your purchasing to cover only the most popular dishes you offer.

Freeze what can be used at a later time

  • To cover the initial overages, put those freezers to use.

Compost all prep-food

  • Now is the perfect time to spin up a food composting program if you don’t already have one in place. Composting programs are always in demand.

Donate unsellable food to staff

  • With finances tight for employees, direct food donation not only helps them – it prevents you from having to throw away perfectly good produce and meat.

Donate unsellable food to local shelters/food banks instead of composting it

  • The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects restaurants from liability when donating to nonprofits.

Aside from food waste, there is another waste associated with COVID-19 that restaurants need to pay attention to.

Plastic Waste:

Unfortunately, COVID-19 prevention procedures generate more waste as single-use containers, condiments, cups & utensils are needed. The easiest way to curb this type of waste is to simply ask consumers if they want utensils instead of automatically adding them to to-go boxes. Many food delivery apps have already adopted the practice of offering consumers the choice, and it’s simply a matter of asking consumers on phone-in orders what they need.

Gloves, Masks:

All staff members should wear gloves and discard them after touching credit cards, prepping food, and disinfecting surfaces.  Proper use and handling of gloves is a critical step to keeping your customers and employees safe. The CDC has a useful guide on how to safely remove gloves, which you can print and display in your prep areas. The key is to make sure that gloves make their way to the proper trash containers and don’t end up on the floor – potentially creating another source of contamination.

Paper Waste:

With all of the cleaning and disinfecting that a restaurant needs to be doing on a nearly constant basis, using paper products can produce its own waste nightmare, aside from being extremely expensive. Using reusable rags with CDC-approved sanitizing agents (like bleach) to clean all surfaces instead of disposable wipes not only saves money but prevents waste.

Waste Reduction for Food Distributors

Waste challenges for food distributors are a little more difficult for a few reasons:

  • Scale

A food distributor has to deal with tons of food at a time and can service multiple large-scale operations.

  • Existing Infrastructure

Food distributors have purchasing, warehousing, and logistics practices in place to support existing operations. Making sweeping changes to those practices takes time and spoilage on produce is a ticking time clock.

  • Market Restrictions

Food distributors have the challenge of not being able to sell to the public because of labeling restrictions. Nutritional labels are required on any products that are sold directly to consumers, and food distributors are designed to sell to restaurants and facilities.

Short Term Changes:

Starting with what you have on hand now, there are some immediate steps that can be taken to reduce the amount of food waste you are producing:

  • Freeze what can be frozen first to prevent spoilage.
  • Store what can stay on shelves for future use. This may require some warehousing changes but will prevent having to throw away food that can be sold in the future.
  • Donate perishable food that cannot be sold to employees.
  • Donate to local shelters. The restrictions on food donation are much less restrictive than what can be sold directly to consumers. Food donation also has the added benefit of tax breaks.

For the food you cannot store or donate, recycling is always the best option. There are food waste recycling programs that can turn food waste into everything from compost and animal feed to biofuels. Landfilling food always needs to be the LAST option.

Moving forward, food distributors need to work with customers to limit deliveries and maximize the size of orders.  This environment we are in today should help restaurant operators be more receptive to that than in the past.

Long Term Changes:

When the quarantine ends, food distributors have opportunities to take the lessons we’ve learned in the last few months and enhance business processes. Making changes to the logistical infrastructure that is creating issues now will build inefficiency and redundancy for the future of your business. There are a lot of hard lessons being learned right now, but that experience doesn’t have to be in vain.

Sustainability is no longer just a passing trend; it is a way of doing business that consumers expect. Through all of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak, restaurants and food distributors can maintain sustainable practices now, and in the future.

This article originally appeared on Total Food Service

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