Although the pandemic put many sustainability initiatives on hold in favor of basic survival, operators and suppliers have resumed their commitments in recent months to the health of the environment. For their part, consumers are very much on board. According to Datassential, climate change is the #3 sociopolitical concern for consumers, cited by 38% of respondents, after healthcare (58%) and the economy (46%).1 Furthermore, 65% of U.S. consumers say environmental sustainability is important to them, whether that’s by recycling or composting, minimizing food waste, watching water use, cutting back on single-use plastics, or generally being more conscientious of purchasing decisions and how they impact the earth.2
In fact, menus have become a primary vehicle for showcasing recipes that minimize waste, promote sustainability, and reduce environmental impact, with reliance on plant-based proteins, sustainably sourced seafood, and local ingredients. Dealing with food waste has emerged as a key component of food and beverage operations, both during the pandemic and moving forward. Small wonder. As operators sought to trim every ounce of inefficiency from their kitchens and dining rooms, turning more raw product into salable ingredients became key. And according to data from Leanpath, the percentage of food wasted in kitchens typically increases as the amount of food produced decreases, a particular concern as production levels have fallen due to COVID restrictions.3
Meanwhile, an analysis from ReFED’s new Insights Engine shows that in 2019, 35% of all food in the United States went unsold or uneaten. The good news is that the total amount of this surplus food has leveled off since 2016 after increasing by 11.9% in the earlier part of the last decade—and surplus food per capita actually declined by 2% during the same period. A deeper look at the data also found that4:
- More than 50% of the produce left behind on farms in 2019 was actually edible. That’s enough fruits and vegetables to theoretically provide each food-insecure American with four servings per day
- 70% of surplus in foodservice comes from consumers not eating everything they’re served
- Uneaten food is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States alone. It consumes cropland and fresh water—and it’s the number one material entering landfills
With its shortages and stockouts, especially in early 2020, the pandemic also made consumers more aware of just how fragile the food system is, especially at a time when more Americans became food insecure. Images of milk being dumped and unharvested vegetables rotting in fields brought the issue home, while the number of people lacking reliable access to sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food grew to more than 50 million in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.5
This awareness is particularly prevalent among Gen Z and Millennial consumers, including college students and white-collar workers. Google, for instance, with hundreds of employee cafés worldwide, has kept more than 9.2 million pounds of food waste out of landfills since 2014. Purdue University, in West Lafayette, IN, developed its Public Greens concept as a fast-casual, farm-to-table restaurant that serves namesake dishes and build-your-own bowl options. The restaurant is working with the university’s College of Agriculture to create an urban microfarm, where ingredients will be grown and harvested.
During this time, there has also been a proliferation of new services and apps that connect overstocked local restaurants directly to nearby hungry residents—offering meals for free or at steep discounts, and sinking deeper roots into their communities.
For more information on food waste, check out ReFED’s new Insights Engine.
Sources: 1. Datassential, Simply Smarter (2021). 2. Datassential International Concepts, Sustainable Chains (2020). 3. Leanpath case study (2021). 4. ReFED Insights Engine (2021). 5. ReFED Annual Report 2020.