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KU-led project to reduce restaurant food waste continues during COVID-19 crisis

Monday, April 13, 2020

LAWRENCE — When stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are eventually lifted, most restaurants can reopen their doors. Yet when it's back to business as usual, chances are that some of that food will be thrown out. A partnership among University of Kansas researchers, students, local restaurants and community agencies is still working to reduce food waste and food insecurity and will be ready once restaurant business returns.

Students working on the project did not find any similar efforts in the nation, and the larger group of researchers hopes to expand the project to more restaurants and eventually make it available as a template that communities across the country could adapt to meet their own needs. 

The group collaborated to determine what consumers and restaurants know about food waste, what can be donated and how to help educate businesses and the public to keep food out of the dumpster and onto the plates of those who need it most. The partnership has developed a toolkit to help all sides reduce waste and will test it later this year when restaurants reopen.

Susan Harvey, assistant professor of health, sport & exercise sciences at KU, teaches a class that took on a food waste reduction program as a community engagement project. 

“One of the biggest findings was there was a lot of finger pointing coming from both sides,” Harvey said. “Consumers blamed restaurants, and the restaurants said, ‘We see what our customers are throwing out.’ It turns out it’s actually pretty equal on where the waste comes from.”

The second major finding was that restaurant owners and employees had little awareness of tax incentives designed to encourage donation of unused food, or of laws that protect them from liability when donating food. In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which encourages donation to nonprofit organizations while minimizing donor liability. Concern about liability was commonly cited as a reason why restaurants were hesitant to donate food that was prepared but not eaten.

Given the findings, a group of graduate students set out to improve knowledge with both groups.

“We figured we could start with the restaurants. One of the questions we asked was ‘would you be interested in learning more about reducing food waste?’ and overwhelmingly they said yes,” Harvey said.

The class then partnered with several organizations, including the Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Just Food, the Douglas County Food Policy Council, several Lawrence-based restaurants, Lawrence Restaurant Association, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, Downtown Lawrence Inc., the Lawrence Solid Waste Division and local farmers.

Together, they are working to design posters restaurants could post for employees with information about what food can be donated, who it can be donated to, answers to frequent questions and contact information for local authorities who can answer questions. They also learned restaurants did not want a “toolkit,” meaning a binder that would be read once and forgotten, or a website that could be difficult to find or also forgotten. Posters, then, were a good solution.

“The restaurants were doing their due diligence on reusing food when possible,” Harvey said. “They often didn’t realize, though, there was the donation side, or that there was the composting and animal reuse side, which is where farmers come in. When people think of a toolkit, it’s often something you read once and then it gathers dust. This is something we hope people will be able to use every day and apply continuously to their businesses.”

While the COVID-19 outbreak has forced restaurants to close or reduce their offerings to delivery or carry out, the project will continue. Plans are to deliver the posters to restaurants later this spring, then begin a pilot testing of the impact when restaurants reopen. The pilot project will gauge the impact of the measures, if donations go up, what restaurants and employees learn about donation, waste reduction and food insecurity and how the resource can be improved. The plan is then to move on to the consumer side, educating consumers on reducing food waste through table tents, fliers delivered with checks and similar measures.

Tyler Lindquist, co-chair of the Douglas County Food Policy Council, said the ongoing coronavirus crisis makes it clear just how important efforts to reduce food waste and address food insecurity are in getting food to people who need it most. The council’s FORWARD working group (FOod Recovery, WAste Reduction and Diversion) aims to address food waste in the community and joined the partnership to do so.

“Just Food has already seen a 283% increase in new client applications, and that number will likely increase as the economic effects of COVID-19 take hold,” Lindquist said. “Being able to divert healthy foods to those most vulnerable and in need should be a high priority for this community, and I hope our efforts eventually become a model for communities across the country. Bottom line, many city and rural residents are going hungry, and we need to focus on better ways of not only decreasing the amount of food going to the landfill but also, and more importantly, addressing source reduction and strengthening our means of diverting healthy foods to organizational partners for distribution to those in need.”

The closure of restaurants has meant many employees who will be implementing the measures are themselves facing food insecurity. Continuing the efforts during days of social distancing and uncertainty will likely pay off even more when dining out becomes a part of regular life again.

“Many restaurants have employees who have reduced hours or who are now out of their jobs who are now in need of food assistance. They may see the benefit that food recovery can have for themselves and their families and feel more buy-in to participating when things are back to normal,” said Sarah Hartsig, community health planner with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “And, because restaurants are reducing their capacity or closing, many have unused stocks of food that can be donated. Hopefully we can build relationships during this time that will continue to pave the way for food recovery later.”

Even before restaurants were forced to close, they showed a commitment to their community and wanting to help reduce food waste and improve ways to get it to those who need it most. Now that many families are struggling, the work is especially important and may take on a new meaning for people who haven’t had to consider food insecurity previously.

“I believe that this will change the idea of what being food insecure or secure means to folks, and how easily and quickly it can happen,” said Ryan Bowersox, Just Food director of marketing and outreach. “Food donations are up, but we are in a time of crisis. I want people to remember that this is a year-round, lifetime reality for a lot of our clients, and not just in a time of crisis. We will continue to educate and now that folks have felt it themselves, maybe they will hear it more loudly.”

Image credit: Pexels.com


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