Finding New Life for Food Waste

Pam George

Reduce, reuse and recycle are the bywords for many local food industry businesses

An estimated 40 to 50 percent of the food waste in landfills comes from consumers, while 50 to 60 percent comes from businesses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And decaying food gives off methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

But food waste—items that are tossed because they’re past their prime or unwanted—can affect a business owner’s wallet as well as the environment. Up to 10 percent of food in a restaurant—some $25 billion a year—is thrown in the garbage before it reaches the table. When there are so many people facing food insecurity, tossing day-old bread or slightly wilted lettuce also has moral implications.

The EPA is looking to cut food waste in half by 2030. To that end, the agency has started the food recovery challenge (FRC) to encourage organizations to practice sustainable food-management. Many area businesses, however, already have policies and procedures in place.

“Brands are going beyond reduce, reuse, recycle, and moving into upcycle recycle—breathing new life into food waste by finding new uses for byproducts that otherwise have been thrown away,” says Marie Gorman, account planner for Quench, a full-service marketing agency specializing in food and beverage marketing and trends.

Planning Ahead

Avoiding waste starts with efficient ordering. Technology can help. Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen invested in a system that tracks sales to help chefs create their shopping list. “Knowing how many cheesesteak eggrolls we sold on the past six Mondays helps our team figure out how many to prepare for this Monday,” explains co-owner Lee Mikles.

At El Diablo Burritos, cooks avoid waste by making hot foods in small batches. The goal: Avoid leftovers. “We have relatively little food waste,” says owner Dean Vilone.

It also helps to use proteins in multiple dishes. Dan Sheridan, who has several restaurants, including Local BBQ and Stitch House Brewery in Wilmington, has become adept at cross-utilizing ingredients. A protein such as short ribs, for instance, might appear in several selections.

Leftovers and excess aren’t the only causes of waste. The chefs in Platinum Dining Group’s six restaurants are encouraged to get it right the first time. “We train our cooks daily to avoid ‘mistakes,’” says owner Carl Georigi. If you give the customer a shrimp taco when she wanted chicken, that’s waste.

Professional chefs also plan to use everything they can in any way they can. That fish cake on the special menu today? It was likely made with the trimmings from last night’s fish special. The soup du jour? It’s made with excess produce and proteins.

Melissa Ferraro, owner of Sonora at the David Finney Inn in New Castle, uses onion peels and herb stems to make stock, while fish heads and lobster shells are ingredients for fish stock at George & Sons in Hockessin. In Lewes, baker Keith Irwin of Old World Bread uses day-old products for bread pudding.

At Janssen’s Market in Greenville, customers tend to shy away from two lonely chicken breasts or a single fish fillet in the case. Rather than waste it, the chefs in the market’s kitchen make value meals, which are kept in the freezer cases for a quick dinner.

Markets that serve meals have an advantage. HoneyBee Seasonal Kitchen & Market in Trolley Square began offering prepared foods as a way to use produce that was nearing the end of its shelf life. “When the sales of prepared foods took off, we realized we were onto something,” says owner Karen Igou. “We still use up just about everything that comes in the door here.”

She might need to wait a little longer these days. Heirloom tomatoes—which are delicious yet hardly picture-perfect—have increased the public’s acceptance of “ugly fruit and vegetables.” So much so, in fact, that Misfits Market made a business model out of offering them to customers by mail. The less-than-perfect-looking produce is priced up to 40 percent off the prettier products in supermarkets. Traditionally, these ugly and irregular items were tossed, although they taste fine.

About two times a week, Little Sisters of the Poor pick up leftover bakery items and other goods from Janssen’s. Photo Butch Comegys

Filling a Need

When the ingredients or products can’t be reused, then the EPA’s recommendations include feeding the hungry. Since Janssen’s Market was founded in 1952, the business has had a relationship with the Little Sisters of the Poor, says Paula Janssen. About two times a week, the charity comes to pick up leftover bakery items and other goods.

The Kenny family’s ShopRite stores also give to Little Sisters, as well as to the Ministry of Caring and the Food Bank of Delaware. However, if a nonprofit requests something special—such as day-old bread for a fundraiser—the stores do their best to accommodate them, says Melissa Kenny, who manages the marketing and sustainability initiatives for ShopRite’s six stores.

Every Thursday for the past five years, Platinum Dining Group has made lunch for about 150 people at the Empowerment Center in Newark, which helps feed the homeless and those in need. “We plan for these lunches by using whatever we have a lot of in raw ingredients and prepare a freshly cooked hot meal,” Georigi says. “These meals are not leftovers. Rather, they make smart use of excess ingredients.”

Down on the Farm and on the Water

If you can’t feed people, why not animals? Brewpubs and breweries have long offered spent grains to the makers of cow and poultry feed. The new Thompson Island Brewing Co. in Rehoboth Beach, for instance, entered into an agreement with an area farmer, who picks up the grain.

Herr’s Snacks in Nottingham, Pa., also supports local bovines. For more than 30 years, Herr’s has raised cattle on a 1,000-acre farm near its headquarters. With the help of nutritionists, the company created feed using potato peels, overbaked pretzels, and potato chips that didn’t make the cut for packaging. The “Steer Party Mix” feeds the cows and helps Herr’s reduce and reuse food waste.

Cows aren’t the only animals that benefit. Kenny knows of supermarkets in New Jersey that provide scraps to pig farmers. In Bethany Beach, Patsy’s Restaurant gives its scraps to a manager who has chickens. In return, she supplies the kitchen with fresh eggs. Some of Janssen’s customers have rabbits, and the store will gladly hand over the leafy ends of carrots and beets to them.

Janssen’s coffee grounds, meanwhile, go to area farms for composting. The grounds are only part of the compost that HoneyBee saves for one enthusiast. He stops by weekly with 5-gallon buckets to pick up scraps, eggshells, and clean paper waste. He’s in good company. Chef Jason Barrowcliff of Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops at the Chadds Ford Inn has a small farm on his property. Scraps go into his home composter, and many of his lovingly grown vegetables wind up on customers’ plates. 

Food waste can also help aquaculture. In partnership with area restaurants and The Nature Conservancy, the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays uses bags of recycled oyster shells for restoration projects throughout the watershed. The shells are the best material on which to create oyster reefs because they are a habitat for small bottom-dwelling organisms, such as grass shrimp, which support commercially valuable crabs and fish.

Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts, which sells oysters on the half shell in many of its 12 restaurants, participates in the program, as does George & Sons and its sister business, Delaware Oyster Co. “It helps rebuild our shoreline,” says George Esterling IV.

Saving Dollars, Making Sense

Finding new life for waste also comes with a cost advantage. A supermarket’s trash-removal fee is determined by weight. The more trash, the higher the bill. Waste by its nature already means lost dollars. Paying for its removal only increases the expense.

ShopRite has found several vendors to ease the burden. The meat and seafood departments save the bones and trimmings in special cans that Valley Proteins removes at no cost to ShopRite. The company uses them to make high-protein feed. Kenny heard that the feed is used to feed Delmarva chickens. “It makes me feel good that it goes out but comes back to Delaware,” she says.

All six stores have composters for organic material, such as flowers, produce, and some formerly hot foods. Each location generates about three tons a month. The soybean oil used for frying also goes into a machine and is recycled. “We don’t waste any of it,” Kenny says.

It makes her happy to take steps to save the planet. For those who are less environmentally minded, she points out that “there are financial benefits from reducing waste the right way.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.