PublicSource in partnership with 90.5 WESA is producing a series on food access and policy in the Pittsburgh region.
University of Pittsburgh freshman Naydia Rowe recently grabbed a plate of french fries at dinner. But when she tasted the fries, she realized they weren’t fresh. She went back and got a new plate.
"I do feel bad because not everyone has food and I'm out here wasting a plate of good fries,” she said.
The University of Pittsburgh’s largest dining hall, Market Central, wastes nearly 1,000 pounds of edible food per day. Their waste contributes to the 130 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States every year, at a cost of $161 billion.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to cut food waste 50 percent by 2030. A group of philanthropies recently released a report on how this could be done. The report, called ReFED, suggested it would cost $18 billion to achieve but would reap more than $100 billion in economic benefits, in addition to environmental ones.
Several large Pittsburgh institutions, including hospitals and universities, have begun implementing some of the report’s recommendations. The efforts include everything from digging through garbage cans to taking photos of all the food that is thrown out. The report outlined more than two dozen strategies, and these institutions are taking on several of the most promising.
But, in some cases, reducing food waste has had unexpected consequences: taking food from the needy.
Watch what you waste
One of the first steps to reducing waste, according to the experts, is to identify what and how much is being wasted from plates.
For the last two years, Pitt volunteers have made a regular habit of putting on rubber gloves and scraping uneaten food into slop buckets at the university. Led by Nick Goodfellow, the food service sustainability coordinator, they’ve now conducted 10 “waste audits” to measure how much food students are wasting and to identify patterns.
At Market Central, they’ve found that the mostly freshman diners each waste more than half a chicken breast per meal on average.
At one waste audit, they saw omelettes weren’t being finished, so they cut the number of eggs down from three to two. And the stir fry wasn’t being finished either, so they started serving it in smaller bowls.
Executive chef Bill Ward decided to take this even further and reduce the size of the plates. Instead of a dinner plate, the main meals would be served more like tapas: a little bit of chicken, a little bit of rice, a little bit of green beans. That way if students didn’t like it, they wouldn’t waste as much.
Smaller plates could reduce food waste by 178,000 tons in the United States, the sixth most promising strategy, according to the ReFed study.
At the end of the most recent waste audit in February, the total waste had fallen to less than 900 pounds, about 5 percent less per student.
Food waste starts before it reaches students’ plates — in the kitchen. A few years ago, the cooks for Carnegie Mellon University’s largest food provider began recording all the food they were composting.
Before cooks tossed it, they set the food on a scale. The scale not only measures how much is being wasted and records it but also takes a picture of it.
The next day, Bob Toski, the director of purchasing, could look at pictures of all the previous day’s waste. This system allowed Toski to see there was a problem at the vegetarian dining location.
When he looked at the pictures, he would see 30 to 40 pounds of food being thrown away that looked like good food. Even if they couldn’t save the food for the next day, he said, that didn’t mean it needed to be totally thrown out.
"And that's when I started to challenge the chefs,” he said. “If this food was good enough to serve the last student through the line at 4 p.m., it's good enough to donate to the less fortunate people in the Pittsburgh community.”
The amount of food waste recorded in the system called Lean Path fell from 64,000 pounds in 2016 to 44,000 pounds in 2017, according to Pascal Petter, the director of dining services.
The Lean Path system costs $1,200 a month to use, but Toski said it provides observations that lead to cost-saving decisions. Every good kitchen needs to keep track of its waste, Toski said, or costs will spiral out of control.
This potential cost savings is one of the reasons food waste experts think tracking software like Lean Path could be a critical component of the food waste solution. The ReFed report listed waste tracking and analytics as the second most promising tool for preventing food waste.
Predicting the food
Waste can start before the chefs even start cooking, when they decide how much food to order.
When retail cook Marven Khalid showed up to work at a kitchen at Montefiore Hospital recently, a clipboard was waiting for him with instructions for everything he would have to do that day. It told him exactly how much of each ingredient was needed to prepare 160 4-ounce breasts of lemon herb roasted chicken.
Kitchen managers at UPMC’s dozens of cafeterias and restaurants used to decide on their own how much they would make. And the cooks prepared too much food, according to John Howey, the executive chef at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.
UPMC invested $100,000 into a new software system called Computrition that calculated how much each site would really need that day. Instead of making a full pan of food, the system took historical information about what had actually been eaten in the past and instead they may only make half of a pan.
“Within a 12-month period, we were able to save over $100,000 in food waste and food purchases because the system really takes the emotion out of our feeling of ordering,” said Simone Frerk, the executive director of food and nutrition services at UPMC.
Some of the chefs didn’t like losing control at first. But they got on board once she told them that the money they saved would allow them to save jobs.
The new system was so successful at reducing waste that some of the companies who sell them ingredients arranged “emergency meetings” because they thought UPMC had an ordering problem.
That wasn’t the only wrinkle. A week after the new software system went live at one hospital, the local food bank reached out “and was very upset,” Howey said, because they hospital was “no longer donating gobs and gobs of leftover food.”
The waste of reducing waste
Restaurants, like UPMC’s kitchens, are trying to cut out waste to save money, so it’s not unusual to see a big drop in food donations.
“I talked to a restaurant owner who said if I have a chef with extra food, I don't have that chef very long,” said Kathy Hruska, the community food connections manager at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
So Hruska started a program to get some places to donate more predictable meals. Each Burgatory location, for example, has agreed to donate 50 meals per month.
“[The shelters] were never sure what they were going to get, how much they were going to get or if they were going to get anything,” she said. “So it was always like, ‘Well, thanks but this isn't going to be enough for everybody that we feed.’”
Chefs still sometimes reuse leftover food in these donated meals, but if they don't have enough leftovers to make the delivery, they make the meals from scratch with fresh ingredients.
The program has grown quickly: In 2010, the program’s second year, the food bank coordinated 40,000 pounds of donated meals. In 2017, they received more than 200,000 pounds. In total, they’ve served nearly 927,000 meals through the program since 2009.
The food bank’s total donations keep growing every year as well, by about a million pounds. But the future of rescued food may lie in food outside the city — on farms.
Adding better storage — like the refrigeration the food bank added for perishable items — is the fifth best strategy identified by the ReFed report for diverting food waste. Making strides here, the report says, has the potential to save 103,000 tons of food waste.
“As retail stores begin to implement more predictive, algorithmic sourcing, the retail store food waste is going to start diminishing,” said Josh Murphy, the food bank’s director of sourcing and distribution. “Farmers still haven't figured out how to control the weather.”
This story was fact-checked by Mary Niederberger.