When Kevin Walter was a high school student, he had a job at a local food store. One of his regular responsibilities was to pull food past its expiration date from the shelves, destroy it, and put it in the outside garbage bins.
“I couldn’t do it,” says Walter. Instead, he left the food intact in order to give it to the homeless people who gathered around the dumpsters searching for a meal.
Fast forward to today. Walter is now the co-owner and chief procurement officer of Tasty Catering, one of Chicago’s leading catering companies, and he still can’t stand to see good food go to waste.
“A good portion of the population has no clue how much food is wasted that could be used,” says Walter. “And yet, as a business owner, it’s a liability issue as well, because no one wants to serve food that isn’t at its peak.”
For Walter and other leaders within the food industry, dealing with food waste is – and always has been – an issue of ethics. It’s also an issue of good business.
“In 2006, one of our top clients asked us about our sustainability program,” Walter recalls. “The honest answer was, What sustainability program? So we went on a mission to develop a plan.”
At the time, the company had an 8-yard dumpster that a waste hauling company emptied six or more times per week. A second dumpster was needed just to handle the company’s corrugated cardboard waste. For Tasty Catering, becoming more sustainable meant reducing the organic matter and other materials that were destined for the landfill.
After some baseline tracking, the company learned they had 1.66 pounds of wasted food scraps for every $100 in sales. To reduce the amount of scraps, Walter brought in Consulting Chef John Reed, a member of the U.S. Culinary Olympic team, to work with the company’s chefs and line cooks. He taught them how to trim fruits and vegetables to minimize waste. “With a little extra work,” says Walter, “you get more yield, and less goes into the garbage can.”
By setting targets and working closely with the team, Tasty Catering’s kitchen staff reduced food waste by 25 percent, which led to a nearly 7 percent improvement in food cost. “That’s huge for our company,” Walter says.
Next Walter beefed up the company’s recycling program, identifying eight common materials that could be diverted from landfills. By expanding their recycling program and minimizing food waste, Tasty Catering has reduced their contribution to landfills by 60 percent since 2007.
That 8-yard dumpster that was emptied daily? Now the waste hauling company only visits three times a week.
After a few months, Tasty Catering discovered they were actually making money on their recycling. “Diverting waste from the landfill is the right thing to do,” Walter says. “We didn’t feel good profiting from it.” So the company uses this income to purchase TerraPass carbon offsets for their delivery trucks, making every delivery carbon-neutral. (Offsets are a purchased environmental benefit, such as planting trees, to “offset” a detriment, such as emissions produced by delivery vehicles.)
Tasty Catering’s sustainability efforts make good business sense for anyone in the food industry, but Walter says the lessons go beyond those who make and serve food. “If you don’t have a sustainability and responsibility program, it’s hard to recruit,” he says. “Clients expect it as well, especially in the B2B environment. People demand it.”
And, he says, it pays for itself.
Find More from Our Food Waste Series
- The $250 Billion Problem You Don’t Know Exists and the corresponding infographic
- How Tracking Helped a Vegas Legend Lead the Way in Sustainability
- 4 Tips in Leading Sustainability from the Legendary Zingerman’s Deli
- 10 Tips to Cut Food Waste (Slideshow)
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Amber Johnson is the corporate relations advisor for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. Find her on Google+. To find more coverage of sustainability from the Center, check out these articles and videos.