Stepping Up to the Plate: The Private Sector’s Role in Fighting Food Waste

At the 2022 Food Waste Solutions Summit in Minneapolis, Minnesota, presented by the nonprofit ReFED, panelists discussed the private sector’s role in food waste reduction—and the urgency of creating change.

“I look at the food system right now, and I am in awe at what it accomplishes, but at the same time, very afraid of the next few years ahead,” says Marc Zornes, Co-Founder of food technology company Winnow.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index reached a record high in 2022, and experts predict this could lead to global food shortages in the coming years, as restricted fertilizer access may result in lower yields. Zornes notes that the impact of higher food prices will be felt by all, but especially those with lower incomes.

“Now is a moment for us to get really serious about fixing part of our food supply chain. We need to make moves quickly, because the clock is ticking, and the impacts of it are not just on sustainability—it’s literally about our daily bread,” says Zornes.

Winnow’s industry data shows that, on average, between 5 and 15 percent of all food purchased by commercial kitchens gets thrown away. Especially in the hospitality industry, this waste disproportionately impacts developing countries in the Global South without the space or infrastructure to properly process it.

“A lot of places are still struggling with the ability to have even just well-managed landfill facilities. We still see, in some places, uncontained landfills that are burning waste every single day,” says Megan Morikawa, Global Director of Sustainability at Iberostar.

And while federal assistance has ended for restaurants in the United States, Christina Nguyen, Chef and Owner of Hai Hai in Minneapolis, says that they are “still very much experiencing the blowback and issues that started with the pandemic and haven’t quite ended.”

Panelists agree that food waste solutions within the private sector can help solve intersecting global issues, including food security, food cost, environmental justice, and sustainability.

“Food waste is a huge unlock,” says Zornes.

The solutions often begin with simply tracking what’s getting wasted. According to Zornes, most organizations “categorically underestimate” how much food is getting thrown away.

“It is amazing to recognize just the level of complexity of information that we don’t have available to us because these topics weren’t necessarily well-known until 10 years ago,” says Morikawa. “And maybe businesses have been running with the same sorts of systems for 20 years or 30 years.”

Zornes challenges any business working with food to directly measure its waste, especially those that think waste isn’t an issue.

“You most likely have a problem that is a multiple of what you actually believe it is,” says Zornes. “Any measurement is a positive step in the right direction.”

Putting a monetary value on food wasted within an organization can demonstrate its impact on profitability, which helps stakeholders align around the investment needed to solve the issue. According to Amy Keister, Global Director of Sustainability at Compass Group, this transparency is a simple but powerful tool to help reduce waste.

Compass gives their clients full reports about what’s been purchased and what’s wasted, which Keister says “allows for a lot of healthy discussions.” When clients see the data on what is contributing to food waste, they’re empowered to make small changes with big impacts, such as cutting back on buffet stations when service is slower or getting more creative with menu limitations.

In 2021, Iberostar leaders invested in tracking waste across the organization by launching the “three Rs” department (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). The department is “designed not just to manage waste but to remove the concept of waste,” says Morikawa, including through its partnership with Winnow. The artificial intelligence system Winnow Vision automatically identifies, measures, and tracks food waste with cameras. On average, kitchens using this system have been able to cut food waste in half.

But Zornes and Keister emphasize that it’s important to meet people where they are—each organization needs to consider what’s an appropriate goal for their individual teams, and solutions must be actionable and easy to use in the kitchen.

“Start somewhere, it doesn’t have to be perfect…Let’s just make progress,” says Keister.

Beyond internal goals and initiatives, the private sector can drive awareness and education for all eaters. ReFED estimates that more than a third of all U.S. food waste occurs at the household level, and Zornes says that organizations need to set a positive example by being more vocal about their waste reduction progress and success stories.

“When we eat out, if we’re seeing low-waste behaviors emulated and communicated, that’s going to have a knock-on effect on how we think about it,” says Zornes.

Conversations surrounding food waste must also consider different cultures, culinary traditions, and geographic constraints, says Morikawa. A diversity of representation can empower leaders across regions and sectors to solve these challenges in their own contexts.

“It’s an important narrative for us to learn,” says Morikawa. “Because we make products that ultimately do have a global impact.”

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Photo courtey of Pylyp Sukhenko, Unsplash

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