Why Does So Much Food Waste Happen in Restaurants?

In this, my final post in the series on the topic of reducing food waste in restaurant kitchens, I want to examine why there is so much waste of food in American restaurants today, and ways that consumers can help reduce this waste.

There are a lot of reasons behind the colossal waste of food that goes on in the restaurant industry, but I would say that one of the largest causes has to do
with corporate restaurant policy regarding the treatment of leftovers.

When I say leftovers, I am not talking about what comes back on diner’s plates at the end of the meal–that is a separate issue which I will discuss in a little bit. I am talking about corporate chain restaurant policy regarding the disposal of food that is left on the steam table, in the display rack or in
the warming oven at the end of the night shift. The food that can be reheated one more time without bacterial contamination risk or loss of food quality is always saved, cooled properly and refrigerated to be rewarmed the next day, but what about the rest of the food that is quite often still good to eat, but will suffer in looks or taste if it is warmed over the next day. (Most corporate restaurants lack the flexibility in menu that independent restaurants have, so it is not often that you will see a leftover from one day transformed into something else as a dinner special the next day. Consistency is one of the watchwords of the corporate food world, and in the name of the “C-word,” a lot of edible food is thrown away.)

You would think that restaurants would give this food to their employees, or better yet, donate it to a local food bank, food pantry or church soup kitchen to be served to the homeless and impoverished people for whom hunger is a daily reality.

But, alas, that is most often not the case.

Most corporate chain restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and the like have a very strict policy of dumping this perfectly good food out into the dumpster, which is often locked and behind enclosures in order to keep enterprising individuals from “harvesting” or saving this food. (If these enclosed or locked bins tampered with, even by a hungry person, they can then be arrested and charged not with just vandalism for breaking the locks, but for breaking and entering and theft. Imagine being charged with stealing garbage–the whole point of garbage is that the former owner of it no longer wants it, so why is it illegal for someone else to take it before it is heaped into a landfill?) Employees who are caught taking food of this kind home or eating it, or donating it are treated as thieves and are often fired.

Why are such draconian and ridiculously wasteful policies the norm in the corporate food industry?

There are two reasons. One has to do with the fear of food loss through employee theft. Yes, that is right–corporations are so afraid of losing money through employee theft that they waste just as much, if not more, money throwing away imperfect, but still edible food. The reasoning behind this somewhat obtuse concept is that if you have day old muffins that must go out, and fresh muffins, and if you give the employees the day old–still palatable, but not quite the best–to employees to eat or take home, then you would have no way of knowing if they were taking the day old muffins which you were going to throw away or the fresh ones.

The reason why food is not donated to hunger relief organizations has to do with the fear of being legally liable if, due to improper storage or reheating after the food is released into the hands of whatever individuals or organizations to which it is donated, someone or a group of persons fall ill from food borne disease.

That sounds like a reasonable fear, unless one knows about the federal law which protects organizations, corporations and individuals who donate food in good faith to non-profit organizations for the relief of hunger, from legal liability in the unlikely case of illness related to the food donation.

This law, called The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, came into effect in 1996, so there is really no excuse for corporate restaurant chains to -not- donate their food to the needy through non-profit organizations.

It is possible that many corporate policy makers do not know about the law, which is where employees and consumers can step up to the plate and attempt to make a change in the rules that allow so much edible food to be thrown away from corporate kitchens. Ask managers of individual restaurants what their policy is for donating leftovers, and if they cite liability, inform them of this law, and then call a corporate hotline, email the headquarters, or even better, write them a letter, telling them about the law and asking them to change their policies regarding food donation. Whichever course of action you take, get your friends on board, and if you work in a corporate chain restaurant, talk to your managers and see if you can get them to talk to their managers. Send letters to the board of directors or the president of the company. You may be surprised at how effective such communication can be–corporations will not change their policies if there is no complaints, but a volley of complaints, especially those in writing, tend to get the attention of those who are high enough in the hierarchy to do something about it.

You can also work with America’s Second Harvest on these issues, and try and get your local restaurants, both independent and corporate chains, to try and cut down rampant food waste by donating unused food to food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

In contrast, most independent restaurants do not have such unreasonable policies regarding the disposal of unused, unsellable, but still edible food. Every independent restaurant where I have worked has either given such food to employees, or sold it to them at a very low cost, in the interest of both feeding their employees and not wasting food. Many of the independents where I have worked also donated food to homeless shelters and food banks quite generously, even before the Good Samaritan law was in effect. Many other independent restaurants will donate food to various groups for free–for example, at Salaam, we donated lots of uneaten dinner and lunch specials which were still great that day, but wouldn’t be good the next day to the Obama campaign workers who had come to town during the Ohio primary. These folks appreciated the hot food and salads, and we appreciated being able to offer support that wasn’t monetary, but was still necessary and meaningful.

One other reason there is so much food waste in American restaurants, especially in chain restaurants, is the gargantuan portion sizes that have become the norm. Some chain restaurants, like The Cheesecake Factory, have portion sizes so ridiculously large, they don’t serve their entrees on plates, they serve them on oval platters, or as Zak quipped the one time we ate there as his dinner was set before him, “Here comes the trough!” Apparently, frequent diners at such restaurants take their uneaten food home, but when we were there, our table only sent back what we couldn’t eat on our dirty plates, and we saw many diners do the same. Some tables sent away so much food that another three or four people could have been fed on what was wasted. (This is one of the reasons I try to give only sensible portions at Salaam–I hate to see unusable food returned to the kitchen–although in small, independent restaurants, you will often see workers setting aside unusable food as compost or in rural areas as animal fodder. To my mind, that certainly beats sending it to the landfill.)

Of course, when you have restaurants sending food home with individuals who may or may not follow safe storage and reheating procedures, it begs the question as to why they will not donate edible but unsellable food because of liability issues.

I think that in the coming months and years as food prices rise precipitously due to the sharp rise in oil prices, we may see this wasteful attitude toward food in corporate restaurants start to change. We may see a more frugal philosophy of food once more arise in the restaurant industry.

Let us just hope that it is also a more ethical and compassionate philosophy as well. The amount of food that is wasted in American restaurants could easily go towards relieving a significant portion of the hunger problem in our country, and I would like to see more restaurants get behind efforts to feed the needy by participating in programs such as America’s Second Harvest and Share Our Strength. Ask the servers and managers at your favorite restaurants if they participate in food reclamation projects, and see what you can do to foster such efforts in your neighborhood. Everyone who joins in the effort to end food waste and hunger in America and does their own small share is building the momentum of a movement that is not only ecologically sound, but compassionate as well.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Jonathan Bloom, author of the blog, Wasted Food, for putting the idea for this series of posts in my head.


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  1. Awesome. Post. I was hoping you’d address portion sizes, because that’s something that really irks me. Heck, even at our cafe I’ve started to really examine the “need” for large (20 oz) beverages. We watch a lot of good coffee, espresso, milk and other ingredients get wasted because someone thinks they need the coffee industry’s version of the super size. We want to ultimately trim our sizes down, but I know it’ll be a fight to change how people think, i.e. quality versus quantity.

    And: “. . . then you would have no way of knowing if they were taking the day old muffins which you were going to throw away or the fresh ones.”

    In my experience the corporate thought process was, “If we let them take the day old stuff home then employees won’t be able to reason that old stuff is okay and new stuff should not go home, and they’ll start to take the fresh items and that’s stealing/loss.” Seriously, most food service employees are thinking, reasoning adults who can understand a policy, such as , “Employees must pay for all food they eat, the only free food are items that have been logged by a manager as waste” or something similar. Of course I remember Borders firing someone for admitting he’d eaten wasted food from the cafe, after they couldn’t pin a totally fabricated accusation of theft on him. I’m happy I’m running my own place now!

    Comment by Amy — April 14, 2008 #

  2. Amy–you are running your own cafe now? AWESOME!!! That is just too cool!

    Yeah, Borders is horrid for the wasted food policy as is Starbucks. It is all ridiculous stuff to throw something out and fire someone for eating what would be thrown out in the first damned place.

    Comment by Barbara — April 14, 2008 #

  3. I am SO with you on portion size – it’s really getting ridiculous. Even at my local pub, the cheeseburger & fries is still more than I can eat in a sitting. I would love to be able to go somewhere that I could get a starter, a main and a dessert and actually be able to enjoy it all.

    I still can’t comprehend why restaurants are so stubborn about letting employees eat leftovers. If it is just going to get binned anyway, what is the harm??!?

    Oh, someday when I rule the world…Or hit the lottery and open a restaurant. 🙂

    Comment by Cindy — April 14, 2008 #

  4. I can also attest (as a former employee) that the policies at Borders Cafes are strict and that at least some managers are unresponsive to pleas to donate the ‘waste’ food.

    I will not say whether I ever ate or saw eaten any waste food, but I can say that I could and can distinguish perfectly well between fresh food that can be sold and old food that cannot.

    (Also, maybe, just maybe, if Borders didn’t waste food so flagrantly and treat all their employees as potential thieves by default, they would have fewer people feeling animosity toward them that can lead to ‘extending ‘rules about waste food to sellable food.)

    Comment by Alexis — April 14, 2008 #

  5. Alexis–I worked at the same Borders as Amy, as well as another one in a different part of the country, and I agree with you that the corporate policies are just needlessly draconian. And you are right–it is all about fearing the employees.

    I would never work at Borders again, even though I loved most of the folks I worked with and had a lot of fun there–the corporate attitude was just too much for me to stomach.

    Comment by Barbara — April 14, 2008 #

  6. As I read this I was thinking about the Starbucks I frequent, which does donate its “expired” (but still perfectly edible) baked goods to a local shelter. So maybe it’s up to the individual shops/employees to do so, or maybe they are breaking the rules.

    Comment by Kitt — April 15, 2008 #

  7. When I worked at Whole Foods, the “discount rack” was an important perk for many employees, particularly those who worked in the lowest-paying jobs as cashiers and dishwashers. Torn or dirty packaging, peeling labels, just-out-of-date bakery and bulk items, and discontinued products were marked at between 25 cents and a couple of dollars, and placed on a rack near the time clock for purchase. Damaged items from the freezer or refrigerated sections were kept in a crate in the walk-ins.

    But about a year after I began working there, the regional president ended discount racks. He said it was an “unapproved benefit” that hadn’t been voted on in the annual package, and claimed that at some stores, managers were abusing it by marking good product down, or holding back prepared foods until the end of a night and then serving huge plates to employees for only a quarter. He insisted that all damaged items would now go to local charities, but what were they going to do with a pile of pre-dressed salad that would be mush by morning? A single frozen dinner with a crushed carton? One bottle of liquid stevia? Halloween-themed truffles? Out-of-date bakery items sometimes sat for days awaiting pickup, going from edible to blooming with mold.

    I asked him, point-blank, at a store “team meeting” that if there were abuses, why they didn’t address the abuses rather than punishing everyone by ending the discount rack program. He wouldn’t answer. I then asked him “when is the last time you tried to support yourself and your family on less than $10 an hour?” since I knew some of our employees relied on that rack for their basic food needs, but he wouldn’t answer that either.

    Comment by Elusis — April 15, 2008 #

  8. Ahh portion sizes… whenever I’ve eaten at an American-type place, I’ve been stunned by the sizes. I once ventured into TGIF with a friend of mine (where I’m from, they’ve snagged a really good location, and after a day at the beach it’s quite nice to walk a few paces to air conditioned bliss, sit there and eat), who is American – and he said that the TGIF portions we were getting (which were HUGE) were actually smaller than what you’d get in America. Madness. While I’m not a fan of invisible portions that tend to characterize so many “upscale” restaurants, I really don’t like the other extreme – to me a good dinner leaves me feeling satisfied with perhaps the slight suggestion that another mouthful would have been nice. And that longing is what makes it all worth it (and makes me return to the restaurant).

    Comment by Mamlambo — April 15, 2008 #

  9. There’s a great restaurant in the Washington DC area called Rock Creek. (Two, actually, one in Bethesda, Md. and one in Washington itself.) http://www.rockcreekrestaurant.com. Their philosophy is interesting and atypical. Their food is quite tasty and portions are reasonably-sized. So much so that except for dessert, you can’t tell it’s also low fat, moderate salt, and each dish is under 600 calories.

    First time in a long time that I did not take home a bag full of leftovers.

    Comment by Harry — April 15, 2008 #

  10. I was watching PBS this weekend… I think it was on “America’s Heartland” and they showed a gentleman who takes Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to “ridiculous” (at least according to his wife).

    He runs a pig farm a few miles outside of Las Vegas, and practically everything on the farm is one of the 3 R’s. He doesn’t really make his money raising pigs so much as being paid to sortthrough the astonishing amount of food waste from the restaurants and casinos in LV to *feed* the pigs.

    Much better use of food scraps than landfill, and really, the pigs eat better than the vast majority of Americans (how sad is that???)

    Comment by Thalionar — April 15, 2008 #

  11. Barbara –

    I helped an old friend open a store/cafe near the harbor, and I’m the general manager. We’re working on opening a second showroom location near Towson:
    http://bluehouselife.com/ A lot of my HR policies are in reaction to what we dealt with at Borders; it made me sad that when I started with them I felt like a part of a team and by the time I left I felt like a child who was just waiting to be told where I’d screwed up.

    Comment by Amy — April 15, 2008 #

  12. I love huge portions! They mean that a poor student like me can take them home and get three meals out of “one.”
    When I worked in restaurants, only a few years ago, I think I remember them pretty much always letting employees take leftovers home. We would especially get tons of bread and soup. But I have only worked for individually-owned restaurants.

    Comment by Christy — April 15, 2008 #

  13. I would prefer smaller portions because then I could order a soup or salad to start and would feel better. However, when I know it will be a big portion (like a hamburger) I will immediately cut it in half. If I am still really hungry, I’ll eat the other half, but quite often I can take it home. However, not all food lends itself to leftovers.
    I’ve always thought running a restaurant must be difficult because you’re never sure how much food to have on hand.

    Comment by sunny12 — April 15, 2008 #

  14. Thanks for this post. I don’t know if you saw my comment on one of your previous posts, but I mentioned I got in trouble back when I was a teenager working in a coffee shop for “stealing” cookies that were about to be thrown away. I was closing up by myself that night and got caught on camera munching one as I balanced out the register.

    Since I was such a good employee otherwise (being an old-timer at 19 rather than most of the employees who were around 16) I got off with a warning, but yes, techically I could have gotten fired.

    I’ve heard another reason for this policy is that, theoretically, I could have baked a whole lot more cookies than we could have sold, to ensure that some were left over at the end of the day for me to take home. Of course I never actually did that, but corporations never trust their employees.

    The only place I ever worked at that donated food was a farmer’s market. Some of the vendors didn’t want to take unsold stuff home, so they left it there. A truck from a food pantry came whatever the market workers didn’t get. The manager said to me that the leftover produce was “for the hungry, and I’m pretty hungry, how about you?” I did a lot of canning that summer, and the truck was still full of produce once we had taken what we wanted.

    I wonder if one reason chain restaurants don’t donate food is just that they don’t want to go to the trouble. It seems like it would be easier to throw away a few garbage bags full of edible food than arrange for a truck come by at 11 pm to pick it up.

    Comment by Neohippie — April 15, 2008 #

  15. Thanks for this post. I’m from Canada where portion sizes haven’t gotten quite so crazy as in the states. Our son lives in California and we are astounded at the amount of food you get in restaurants. Our daughter always orders off the appetizer menu. My husband and I are quite portion conscious and I usually order an entree and cut it in half (or thirds). My husband usually orders a salad. He then eats half of my entree (or a third) as well as his salad and then takes any leftovers home for lunch. When we are on vacation at an all-inclusive, we never take more on our plate than what we are SURE we can eat. Sometimes that is a surprisingly small amount.

    Comment by Grace — April 15, 2008 #

  16. As the chef at a small co-op market in New England, I am right with you on this one. It kills me to see food tossed. If employees, or charities do not claim it, it gets composted for local farmers or our own herb garden.

    Comment by greg — April 16, 2008 #

  17. I am a college student, and it is amazing how much food is wasted in the cafeterias. With the buffet style, hungry people with big trays are cut loose and they get more than they can possibly eat.

    My school, and many others across the country, are getting rid of the trays because it makes it a lot harder for people to get too much. It can cut food waste by 30-50%!

    Comment by Liz — April 16, 2008 #

  18. Elusis’ post points to the real reasons for not letting employee’s take leftovers. It’s not that the store can’t tell whether or not the employee has taken leftovers. It’s that the employee has incentive to produce leftovers.

    The same can be said for the discount rack. It gives the employees incentive to ding the food and containers or to make too many salads. Now, in the grand scheme of the world wide calorie economy these calories wouldn’t be wasted, but from the point of view of the corporation they would be calories that hadn’t been properly monetized.

    Comment by crack — April 16, 2008 #

  19. I had lunch the day you posted this with a bigwig from YUM Corporation (Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, etc). Thanks to your blog post, I knew enough to ask the food waste question. He says that 45 Million dollars of food is donated a year in this manner. I’m not sure what percentage that works out to be, but it certainly makes me feel better about those chains. (Not that, as an organic vegetarian, I’d ever get a chance to eat at one.)

    Comment by Emma Caywood — April 17, 2008 #

  20. Did you see this Slate article, about why food writers don’t talk about food costs? http://www.slate.com/id/2189234/ It also lists a few recent cookbooks that include cost as a factor.

    Starbucks seems to be pretty good as far as big co’s go. Health care for almost everyone, for example. Another is they took advantage of a study of employee living and work patterns in Seattle, and reassigned employees (on a voluntary basis) so everyone could be much closer to where they lived or to public transportation.

    Some efforts are extraordinary. Starbucks spent 10 years researching to find a way to use recycled paper for coffee cups, to replace the double cups – and then the sleeves – that customers were using. Having finally found a heat-proof cup that uses post-consumer waste, it successfully lobbied to change Federal law to allow the cups to be used. Until that time (about 2 years ago), you couldn’t put post-consumer recycled paper next to hot liquids for fear the paper wasn’t clean enough and the heat would cause something to leach.

    Starbucks also actively encourages its stores to help people compost. One, stores put the used espresso grounds back into those itty bitty bags they come from, and put them out for anyone to take. Two, stores are actively encouraged to say “yes” if someone asks for their coffee trash.

    Back when I drove to work I had the phone numbers of several stores along my commute. When I knew I’d be able to pick up I’d ask them to save ALL their coffee grounds for me. Sometimes it got thrown away by accident (miscommmunication across shifts) but unless the store was too small to hold the bags, the answer was always yes.

    PS – I hate coffee and never buy anything from Starbucks simply because I have no reason to. They still gave me grounds for the asking.

    Comment by Harry — April 20, 2008 #

  21. This was a REALLY interesting and well thought-out post. But, it made me so angry. I’m so sick of corporate owned ANYTHING. This, to me, is just another example of how much $$$ they have and power. I can not believe these rules. The fact that they are afraid of losing money b/c of theft from employees is absolutely mind-blowing. They are wasting all this food, don’t feed their employees for free who work hard for minimum wage and then throw perfectly good food away.

    after years of volunteering for meals on wheels and soup kitchen programs, it makes me sick to know how much food is wasted by these corporations. The commenter who said that someone in corportate fast food mentioned that 45 million in food a year is donated…well, to me, that’s not good enough. I bet you the total amount of sales of all those ‘restaurants’ come out to WAY more than that. 45 million most likely adds up to maybe 2 percent at best. they can do better.

    thanks for an insightful read.

    amy @ we are never full

    Comment by We Are Never Full — April 21, 2008 #

  22. Well if the left over food is high in quantity it will be a loss to the restaurant.If its not a huge loss to them ,they should better donate it to some poor or charity organizations.

    Comment by Banks, Bill — April 22, 2008 #

  23. Very informative stuff – thanks for sharing ^^ If you’re willing to share, what is the theme have you got at the moment? I want to know if it’s a free one.

    Comment by wow gold — February 24, 2009 #

  24. really? can you tell me where did you get this information?

    Comment by hihi — April 11, 2009 #

  25. I’m a chef, hihi–I’ve spent large chunks of my adult life in the food service industry in various capacities. I have seen this go on in restaurants for years.

    I am also a culinary school graduate, so I was taught by various chefs how to avoid food waste, in addition to figuring out ways to avoid it my own self.

    Comment by Barbara — April 11, 2009 #

  26. websites

    Comment by Caleb — September 24, 2011 #

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