With growing concern about hunger around the world, the stubborn fact persists that the problem with food waste is one of distribution, not supply. In the United States and United Kingdom, anywhere from 33 to 40 percent of food is wasted. Food waste is also a problem in other affluent regions of the world, including East Asia and the Middle East.
Unilever quotes the statistic that 400,000 tons of food are wasted annually, much of it in restaurants and professional kitchens–at a cost to business. To that end, the food and consumer packaged goods giant branched out its United Against Waste campaign to its North American division.
The campaign, one of Unilever’s many initiatives, includes three high-level steps. First, businesses who are interested can sign up online receive an information packet from the company. Business owners can learn new tips (or ones many of us have simply forgotten) on how to reduce their amount of food waste. Finally, Unilever encourages participants to submit success stories that are then shared with others in the program.
While Unilever’s United Against Waste is targeted at restaurants and food service companies, some of the tips can translate into the homes, where plenty of food waste occurs:
- Vegetable trimmings: get the maximum use out of those discarded vegetable bits and make a stock. If you bought to many vegetables, chop them up and make a quick salad bound with mayo or other dressings.
- Portion control: Well that should be no surprise. Any visitor to the United States can make a quick correlation, and causation, between American’s waistlines and the amount of food plunked on restaurant plates.
- Seasonal food: Restaurants often work with their suppliers from a demand-driven, not supply-driven approach. Using seasonal foods in a menu is not just good spin: more and more consumers like the idea of menus that use local ingredients. Plus the use of local ingredients means that not only are less products shipped long distances, but that less food spoils along the way.
Despite the discouraging statistics over food waste, the evidence suggests more diners are aware and concerned over what occurs within a restaurant’s kitchen. A Unilever study suggests 72 percent of American diners are concerned with the proper disposal of food waste (which explains our predilection for doggy bags); 60 percent of those surveyed replied that there should be more transparency about restaurants’ sustainable practices; and almost half said they would spend more on meals at restaurants and other food service locations that limited food waste.
Clearly other reasons are behind the massive amount of food waste in society. Regulations that make it difficult for retailers to donate food to charities; the policies of the retailers themselves; and misleading “sell-by” and “expiration” dates that are good for marketers but confuse consumers. Restaurants provide a vivid example of how steps taken to avoid food waste can help waste diversion efforts, so Unilever’s collaboration with the food service industry is a solid approach to confronting this problem.
Leon Kaye, based in California and who has recently returned from the Middle East, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo of enormous breakfast sandwich too big to finish at a Portsmouth, NH diner courtesy Leon Kaye.