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  • Writer's picturePaul Rechberger

Food Waste at Social Events

Christmas time was around the corner and Clarkson University had their semi-annual faculty event before going off on their well-deserved vacation. These celebrations come with awards for achievement and honoring other notable events and faculty members. The banquette comes with delicious food catered by the dining hall service provider. This year, the food provided reminded one of an all-you-can-imagine Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, salad, fruit salad, cranberry sauce, assorted bread, butternut squash tortellini, and cooked wild rice with cranberries. Additionally, each table was equipped with plenty of desserts and strawberries. In other words, an abundance of food. Eventually, once everyone had dined and enjoyed their meal, we instructed them on how to separate food waste from all the other waste on their place (butter wrappers, napkins, etc.). The school would then go on and feed the anaerobic digester with these post-consumer food scraps. Nevertheless, much of the food served as a buffet was left untouched, yet the catering service was not allowed to either donate the food or feed it to animals, due to health and safety regulations. Knowing that this would happen, I had already brought my Tupperware and started filling up container after container with delicious and nutritious food. I ended up filling about ten containers worth of food, an amount that would be part of my meals for the next week, while also sharing some of the deserts with friends. However, the amount I packed up exemplified only a small fraction of what went to the digester that day: I did not even touch the meat (vegetarian), and the amounts I set aside for myself were marginal. Additionally, all the catering workers feasted on the already served buffet-style food after the event was over to minimize the food-waste “damage”.

From a food systems perspective, the catering service and the university did their best to minimize the amount of food that had to be discarded. First and foremost, all the organic waste went to an anaerobic digester, hence preventing it from going to landfills where it would release harmful greenhouse gases. Next, all staff members were encouraged to eat themselves and box leftovers. Lastly, all the prepared but not served food ended up being donated after the event. Nevertheless, plenty of food was wasted that day. I think the system is flawed! Caterers are expected to deliver the utmost feasting experience, no matter the cost and waste. They are not supposed to run out of food; their business model and revenue stream rely on an abundance of food options available as well as an overall superior presentation of food items. These expectations lead to an overproduction of food to meet the customers’ needs.

What do you think? How can we improve our catering services to reduce food waste? Have you ever brought your containers to carry leftovers home with you? How would you react if a catering service runs out of food during an event?

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