Kansas State University graduate researchers help campus eatery reduce food waste
Thursday, May 26, 2016
MANHATTAN — A project by three Kansas State University hospitality management graduate students is helping a campus restaurant reduce food waste and increase its bottom line.
The sustainability project at JP's Sports Grill in the university's Jardine Apartment Complex was led by Ryan Irvin, master's student, Goodland; Michelle Alcorn, doctoral student, Enid Oklahoma; and Daniel Vega, master's student, Costa Rica.
Reducing the amount of food wasted in the nation by 50 percent by 2030 is an initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015. The EPA, based on measurements taken in 2012, estimates about 4.5 million tons of food waste comes from restaurants nationwide annually.
The graduate researchers, using a grant from Kansas State University's Green Action Fund, came up with a project to track plate and kitchen waste, explore how to reduce waste, and train employees to understand the impact of wasted food and to follow new procedures in food conservation.
The project started with six weeks of baseline tracking. The researchers weighed and took pictures of plate and kitchen waste at JP's and took notes of the types and amounts of food that went to compost piles.
"I saw some of the same wasted food in almost every single picture," Irvin said. "That was the light bulb moment, when I thought, 'We can have an effect on the amount of food wasted.' I could see it being wasted every single day."
Vega, who is an employee of JP's, designed a spreadsheet database to track the food that was being wasted, the specific products that were wasted, the amount of waste in ounces, and the reason for the waste, such as inedible trimmings, product arrived spoiled, expired leftovers, expired in storage, improperly cooked, improperly prepared and overproduction.
The researchers then trained employees on the importance of reducing wasted food and how to track food waste using Vega's database on iPads provided to the restaurant as part of the project. Employees also were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their knowledge and attitude toward food waste. A second questionnaire will assess any changes in employee knowledge and attitudes as a result of the project.
Based on an analysis of the food being wasted, three changes were made at JP's. First, smaller salsa ramekins are being used. Customers can still refill the ramekins for free, but the new size is reducing the amount of salsa taken but not consumed by the customer. Second, burgers no longer come standard with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles; customers are asked what they want so they don't leave the items they dislike on their plates. Third, table tents prompt customers to request to-go boxes and explain why employees are now asking them if they want certain items, rather than automatically receiving them.
"Just by making small changes in the restaurant, we have saved them a lot of produce, which not only helps the environment but also affects the restaurant's bottom line," Vega said. "Also, the customer knows they are helping the environment, so we feel like it's a win-win situation."
The project mostly focused on restaurant "back of house" sustainability decisions, but Alcorn said customers also have the power to fight food waste.
"Customers can assist in the reduction of plate waste by making decisions like asking for to-go boxes and only ordering what food items they will eat," Alcorn said. "The customers have the opportunity to reduce plate waste, which benefits the environment and reduces the amount of the waste that the restaurant must dispose."
The researchers plan to further analyze their data, submit their findings for journal publication and present their results at conferences across the country. The project was timely, as the restaurant is preparing to open a second location in January 2017 at the K-State Student Union. It will be up to the on-site management on whether to implement similar steps for the grab-and-go options to be offered.
Alcorn has already presented the research at an on-campus food security symposium this spring.