Proportional Waste

Wasted Food reader Gloria recently wondered how the trend of gigantic portions will be reversed (here’s a fun quiz she’s forwarded to illustrate the problem). Value has become one of the areas in which they compete. From heavy Thickburgers to $12.99 three course meals, quantity is in vogue.

Hopefully, this will change. But how? Given obesity levels, it would make sense to simply reduce the amount of food and the price. But I doubt restaurants would do anything that diminishes revenue. I can imagine they’d be happy to serve less food for the same price. And if the cost of food dramatically increased (and it’s now quite cheap, as I’ll discuss in the next post), it wouldn’t work from a business standpoint for them to slop huge portions on our plate.

I can imagine a consensus building that these “family-sized” or “value” entrees are both in poor taste and harmful to individuals. Then if one restaurant started offering something like “sensible-sized” meals and they caught on, you’d see all their competitors follow suit. A “less is more” attitude caught on in the 80s as ‘gourmet’ became a buzzword. Could it happen again? Stranger things have happened. Remember organic food was a loony, lefty idea five years ago and is now carried by everyone, including Wal-Mart.

That’s my guess on how businesses might reduce portions, and hence, waste. What about universities? I’ve been researching college food waste and recently toured Tufts University’s composting operations. Given the array of all-you-can-eat, self-serve cafeterias, undergrads are certainly ‘getting their waste on.’ Many schools mitigate this food loss by composting, but it’s still a major source of waste. This costs colleges twice–in paying for food and waste removal. Of course, at about $44,000 per year, Tufts likely passes along those expenses to students.

To get kids to pay attention to waste, Tufts measured waste one lunch in the Fall of 2005. They calculated about 3.5 ounces of waste per student. Harvard had slightly higher results of between 3 to 5 ounces per student per meal. Rob Gogan, Harvard’s manager of recycling and waste, said that the school runs an awareness campaign to let students know that each student wastes close to a pound of food each day. “We try to shame the students into not wasting food,” Gogan said. “We remind them that Jesus said ‘go out and gather what remains so that none shall be wasted.'” 

Since the shame campaign hasn’t really slowed waste, Gogan and others at Harvard think area may be more convincing than Jesus: “We’re looking at reducing the size of plates so that students can’t fit as much on them,” Gogan said. 

They may be onto something. And if it’s implemented, maybe we’ll see the idea spread to restaurant entrees.

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