What I’ve Learned About Food Waste as a Bon Appetit Fellow

A display of fruits and vegetables on a table

In every step of the supply chain, from the field where vegetables are harvested, to the kitchens where meals are prepared, to the plate (and if all else fails, the compost pile) at Bon Appétit Management Company, we’ve long been aware of the urgent need to minimize waste throughout the food chain. 

Throughout college and now as a Fellow at Bon Appétit, the issue of food waste has long held my interest. I know it’s an urgent and systemic problem that impacts both people and the planet. 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted every year and there’s more food waste than any other material in our municipal landfills. Wasted food also represents lost nourishment: inequitable access to food and food insecurity burden many communities and these issues are on the rise, impacting 12.8% (17 million) of U.S. households in 2022.  

In the past two years as a Fellow, I’ve engaged hundreds of college students around food waste issues to raise awareness and inspire others to address this problem. I’ve learned and shared how Bon Appétit is constantly evolving our commitment to addressing food waste companywide. And I’ve learned about how other players in this space are taking action, both on the ground and through legislation.  

Below, I’ll dive into to some of the details of what I’ve shared and learned while focusing on the issue of food waste as a Fellow.  

Getting Hands-on with Food Waste 

Continuing in the legacy of our 2019 research with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Toward Cleaner Plates: A Study of Plate Waste in Food Service, last fall I paired my plate waste studies with a survey to illuminate some of the reasons for waste in all-you-care-to-eat cafes across the East Coast. I distributed a simple survey on “Why did you throw out food today?” Over 775 students contributed responses across all-you-care-to-eat cafés on six college and university campuses.  

We found that, on average, 39% of the guests surveyed served themselves too much or thought they were hungrier. 26% of guests did not like the food they chose, 21% were served more than they could eat, and 13% ran out of time to eat.  

These findings support prompting guests to slow down and practice mindful eating by checking in with their hunger levels, as well as encouraging them to share feedback about food they’d like to see more or less of and guiding our teams on proper portioning. 

Beyond researching the causes and quantities of post-consumer food waste, I’ve also engaged campus communities through guest lectures focused on food waste management, collaborated with sustainability offices, and hosted food waste-focused cooking demos. I have partnered with student organizations to harness the creative potential of food waste by transforming waste materials from our kitchens into natural dyes and watercolors. The most pressing food systems challenges such as the waste crisis often exist at a scale that feels impossible to comprehend. But educational programs like these help to break down the issue in tangible ways that help us engage with the problem at hand.  

Food Waste Reduction in Action in the Kitchen  

Bon Appétit’s Waste Not 2.0™ waste tracking app has been an integral part of our kitchens and cafes efforts to reduce food waste. The app equips our chefs and culinary teams with a deeper understanding of food waste in their operations through streamlined tracking and reporting that is easy to integrate into busy kitchen operations. Designed with busy culinary professionals in mind,  Waste Not 2.0™ will be central to achieving our newly updated waste reduction goals, which continue to be informed by the USDA and EPA’s guidance and their national goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50% by 2030. 

Donating Surplus Through Food Recovery 

Across the country, student Food Recovery Network chapters populate dining halls at the end of the day or week to repackage leftover food to be delivered to or picked up by community organizations. We’ve collaborated with students since 2013 to ensure surplus food has the chance to feed people.  

When students aren’t involved, other food recovery partners step in to make it easy for our busy culinary teams to donate. In California, Chefs to End Hunger facilitates the redistribution of prepared food for inbound and outbound donations and logistics.  

Across the country, FoodRecovery.org, formerly MEANS Database, believes that “it should be easier and cheaper to donate your unsold food than to throw it away.” Their straightforward online platform allows food service companies to post available donations for local non-profits to then claim and pick up.  

Finally, Second Helpings in Indiana takes food recovery a step further by not only rescuing prepared food, but also taking whole foods that would otherwise be thrown away, preparing meals with these ingredients, and delivering them to local nonprofits at no charge — all while training individuals for careers in the culinary industry. 

Many of the schools we serve are engaged in innovative approaches to addressing food insecurity, including on-campus food recovery projects and more.  

Waste Legislation is on the Rise 

As we continue to fight food waste at Bon Appétit and spread the word about the issue, states are passing new legislation surrounding topics of diverting waste from landfills and mandating food donation in multiple states. These initiatives are pushing innovation and progress towards reducing food waste and addressing food insecurity.  

For example, in California, all food service providers are now required to comply with the food waste ban and recovery laws. By 2025, the state aims to have reduced organic waste disposal by 75% and be rescuing at least 20% of currently disposed surplus food for people to eat.  

Zero Waste DC shares this vision, mandating that institutions donate surplus edible food, separate back-of-house food waste from recyclables and other trash, ensure food waste is composted, as well as train employees on waste protocols. 

In New York, the Food Donation And Food Scraps Recycling Law requires businesses and institutions that generate two tons of wasted food per week or more annually to donate excess edible food and recycle remaining food scraps if they are in proximity of a composting facility or anaerobic digester. Check out ReFED’s U.S. Food Waste Policy Finder to learn more about current legislation in your state. 

Whether I’ve been engaging with students, watching how our culinary teams manage waste, collaborating with food recovery projects, or diving into legislative proposals aimed at stopping food waste, one thing is clear: curbing food loss and waste is a complex problem, but one that can be solved by stakeholders throughout the food system. All it takes is more people joining the fight, one meal at a time.