Laura Abshire, the National Restaurant Association’s director of sustainability, recently attended the Last Food Mile conference at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There, she discussed the Association’s Conserve program, the issue of food waste, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance — of which she is co-chair — and making the business case for sustainability.
We started it to give operators the tools they needed to make their businesses more sustainable. We believe in educating the industry on sustainable practices. Conserve is open to everyone, not just the association’s members. Before we began in 2009, there wasn’t really any place for restaurants to go to for information on this topic.
What is the biggest difference today in comparison to when Conserve began?
The program originally focused on energy and water conservation and some packaging issues. Food waste was just a part of it. But in the last few years we’ve been putting much more emphasis on that problem.
We also now have an advisory council – the Conserve Sustainability Advisory Council – which is made up of representatives from restaurant companies immersed in practicing sustainability at a high level, like Chipotle and Starbucks. They’ve really figured out how to apply some best practices at their stores so we’re taking our cues from them to figure out what more we can do moving forward.
You’ve become involved in the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. What is that?
The FWRA is an industrywide collaboration between the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the NRA. The partnership began in 2011 as part of an effort to see how the industry could work to reduce, reuse, and recycle food waste together. Since then, we’ve worked to support those goals by sharing best practices and producing tools the industry can use in their daily operations.
What’s one of the biggest lessons learned from participating in the FWRA?
We’ve found there are several barriers to eliminating food waste and increasing food donation. Whether it’s perceived or real, a lot of manufacturers, retailers and restaurateurs think there are difficulties in reducing food waste and we want to overcome that. We need to train our staffs better, have the infrastructure built out and make it something restaurateurs really care about. To do that, we have to make the business case for them, show they can save money and that their customers will really enjoy the restaurant experience because of it. But beginning to track food waste – that’s the most important piece. Also, the FWRA recently released its newest assessment on food-waste reduction. We found barriers to donation and recycling differ based on the size of the restaurant.
What technologies are available to help restaurants track food waste?
Conserve just partnered with LeanPath, which specializes in reducing commercial food waste, to give our members access to a program that will help them track and reduce food waste at their restaurants.
What’s important for restaurateurs to know about food donation?
A lot of them don’t know if they donate food there’s a tax write off for doing so. Also, under the Good Samaritan Act, restaurateurs are protected against liability claims associated with donating food. We’re trying to let them know that participating in these programs not only benefits them financially, but helps their communities, too. It’s a win for everyone.