Imagine, for a moment, that you get your lunch from the same café every day. You get a turkey sandwich that’s a little too big for you to finish, but it’s a good value. Then one day, you come in and notice your turkey sandwich is a little bit smaller. Would you be annoyed? Or relieved that you weren’t wasting food?
As simple as it seems, issues like this one are the heart of the fight to end food waste. While we in the food service industry continue to make changes to reduce waste, many fear that those changes could disappoint customers.
In the recently launched Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, a baseline study conducted by ReFED, an organization dedicated to ending food waste, Sodexo looked at behavioral changes that can reduce waste. Serving right or appropriate portions is one example; another is cooking food to order towards the end of the meal service instead of keeping the displays stacked to the brim with food that will be thrown away at closing time. From the ReFED Roadmap, we found a surprising reason that many of these simple changes weren’t being implemented—fear that customers won’t understand. Would customers see adjustments to portions as a reduction in value? Would they see food being cooked to order as an inconvenience? Worries like these are keeping the food service industry from implementing much-needed measures.
To overcome these barriers, the industry needs its customers to both understand and support the food waste mission. They need what is often called “social license,” meaning the industry need customers’ support to take necessary steps.
“We spent some time in our interviews with retailers and food service trying to understand what the limitations and the challenges were in terms of them changing their business models,” said Sarah Vared, the Interim Executive Director of ReFED. “Often it came back to this social license concept.”
The Roadmap found this issue at every level of the industry: In procurement, caterers worry about running out of food, so they over-order. In cafeterias, managers believe that displays have to be full to make food look more appealing. And on the front lines, food servers love to give a little extra to their “favorite customers.” Those in the industry told us that while ending any of these common practices would save them a little money, it would cost more in terms of disappointing customers, creating a major barrier to ending food waste.
This is a barrier, but it’s one that we can overcome. We simply need to communicate to customers why these changes are being made. Something as simple as a sign saying, “we cook to order at the end of the meal to reduce waste,” could drastically change customers’ expectations. A caterer explaining the impact of food waste to his customer could help that customer be tolerant of running out of one or two items. And if servers asked customers how big a portion they really wanted, less food would end up in the trash, and everyone would feel empowered.
Education is a very necessary component. We should inform our customers that 40 percent of the food produced in American every year is not eaten, and that wasting food also wastes all the water, fuel and labor that went into growing and transporting that food. By educating our customers, we’re not just getting their support to change the way we serve food, we’re also bringing them on board in our bigger mission to end food waste.
If we’re going to move toward a more sustainable society, food waste is an issue we urgently need to tackle. And if we’re going to tackle this problem, we need our customers’ support. Addressing this barrier could create major change in the food waste landscape. Sodexo recently launched a yearlong education and awareness program on the topic of waste for our employees and customers. Look for these materials in your Sodexo café and facilities and let’s reduce food waste together.
Christy Cook is Director Sustainability Performance and Field Support, Office of Sustainability and CSR, for Sodexo North America