A pilot program through the city is helping restaurants to reduce the amount of food they throw out, resulting in savings and a better environmental impact. Last year, the Denver Department of Public …
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A pilot program through the city is helping restaurants to reduce the amount of food they throw out, resulting in savings and a better environmental impact.
Last year, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment launched its Food Action Plan, which had goals to get meals into the hands of food-insecure residents and to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. The city is working in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which gave the city a $200,000 grant, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation.
Through the Food Matters section of the plan, staff at the DDPHE started working with restaurants to see what could be done about food waste. Susan Renaud, a community engagement administrator with the department, said that around 41% of Denver’s waste comes from households. The second largest category is from restaurants at 25%. She added that they wanted to find a way to work around the busy schedules of restaurants, doing something that was “impactful, but not cumbersome.”
“We were tasked with looking at how we could move the needle with restaurants,” she said. “Not all cities break down that way. Denver is kind of unique in having restaurants as the second largest chunk.”
The first round of the pilot worked with restaurants in the Highlands, Renaud said. At first, city staff wanted to launch the program citywide after the initial pilot. But Renaud said that when they surveyed restaurant owners, they said it made more sense to continue working neighborhood chunks first.
The second round of the pilot worked with 11 restaurants on South Pearl Street. It wrapped up at the end of last year. For two months, the restaurants received free composting services, as well as training on prevention and food waste. Over two months, those restaurants composted more than 7,000 pounds of food, Renaud said.
Benjamin Susnick with HOJA on South Pearl said that greener business models are who they are. The pilot was beneficial to them because it helped connect them to a hauling company to take the compost, as well as other resources. The city worked with Scraps during the South Pearl pilot. The economics are also something that can’t be ignored.
“It’s important business practices,” he said.
The pilot also works with a “champion restaurant,” Renaud said, which acts as a mentor using their own experience in waste reduction. For the South Pearl group, Chook was selected.
“They were able to share some of their own experience,” Renaud said. “They engineered their menus from the get-go just to eliminate as much waste as possible.”
Creating a strategy
The pilot broke down into three categories: prevention, donation and recycling. Each restaurant came up with a strategy to help prevent waste from entering the landfill system. Hoja for example, pickles their broccoli stems. Other restaurants began using vegetable scraps to make broth. This created additional savings, Renaud said, because by using scraps the restaurant was spending less money on chicken broth.
Next, the restaurants looked at what food could be donated rather than thrown away. For this part of the pilot, the city is working with We Don’t Waste, a nonprofit that takes leftover food from large catered events or unwanted foods from grocery stores and distributes it to other nonprofits that gives the food to people in need.
But since many of the restaurants are made-to-order, the donation part of the pilot has been tricky, Renaud said. The city first began educating restaurants on food donation with the launch of the Food Action Plan. Many restaurants feared donating food in case it was bad or not prepped correctly. Renaud said she hopes to keep looking out for ways to improve this part of the pilot as it continues.
Composting was where most restaurants began to see the largest difference in food waste. Renaud said that the pilot helped restaurants track their numbers both before and after the program. Many restaurants started at around 25% diversion. After they began composting, those numbers jumped to an average of 70%. Renaud said those numbers have the potential to go even higher with training and prevention strategies.
Susnick said their diversion numbers at HOJA reached closer to 90%. Having less physical trash has helped his restaurant to save on trash hauling bills with the city. Even with the smallest trash bins, waste can cost a restaurant around $300 a month, he said.
“It’s amazing how expensive waste is,” Susnick said.
He added that he also wants to look into the possibility of sharing dumpsters between restaurants, which would add more cost savings.
In the pilot with the Highlands, Renaud said the city also closed the loop by giving back to the community. Working with Parks and Recreation, the Highlands received 30 cubic yards of compost to its local park and a screening of the film “Just Eat It.” Renaud said they are looking for similar opportunities with the South Pearl Street community.
Many of the restaurants are hoping to continue their efforts outside of the pilot as well. Rod Tafoya, President of Mission Yogurt, Inc., which operates participating restaurant Que Bueno Suerte, said in an email that the company’s goal is to operate with the environment in mind.
“Mission feels it is imperative to take needed steps to meet growing public demand for higher-quality food sources and environmental sustainability,” he said. “We’re looking forward to expanding on our composting efforts as we move into a new year.”
Renaud said they hope to continue the pilot through the city this year. Staff are currently deciding on where the location of the third pilot will be.
“Whenever we talked to restaurants in the beginning they said `We don’t waste food,’” she said. “We still have a lot to learn and I think we can hone it to make it better.”
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