When the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020 it revealed weaknesses in the food supply chain – panic buying resulted in empty grocery store shelves while restaurants were stuck with food they couldn’t sell. Food waste is not a new problem. It’s estimated that 40 percent of food in the U.S. is tossed out. KGNU’s Roz Brown has more on the role COVID-19 has played in food waste.
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“Food waste, is probably the thing that will close most businesses this year,” said Ross Goldberg, managing partner with the Rye Society, a neighborhood delicatessen with locations in Denver and Boulder.
Goldberg says there are lots of reasons for food waste – on the farm, it can be bad weather; grocery stores sometimes overbuy; restaurants fall victim to poor planning. The unforeseen pandemic created a new set of issues: panic buying, an interrupted food supply chain, and restaurants forced to close overnight. Goldberg says when that happened, certain products were more susceptible to waste than others.
“I mean dairy is a big one – cheese, milk – and when it comes to protein, we have the ability to vacuum seal or cryovac and then freeze, but quality drops significantly when you do that and when you rely on return customers – it only takes one bad experience for a customer to never come back,” said Goldberg.
It was March 17, 2020, when Colorado Governor Jared Polis ordered all restaurants to suspend dine-in services, allowing only takeout and delivery. Goldberg says that was a difficult moment for restaurants.
“There’s not a lot of restaurants that can rely solely on take-out and delivery,” said Goldberg. “So, with all the changes to covid restrictions, you get reduction in capacity, you’re not going to be able to sell all the food you’ve brought in. We were given two days to sell all our products.”
The health crisis meant staff in many restaurants were let go. Not sure when they’d reopen, Goldberg says a few restaurants were able to send extra food home with employees and others were able to donate certain foods.
“A lot of food banks and missions don’t accept prepared food – so if you’ve created a sauce or cooked something, there’s not a lot of places that will accept it because they’re worried it won’t be fresh.”
Keeping food fresh was not a problem for grocery stores – they could barely keep food on the shelves. But as Ross explains the food distribution chain is not the same for restaurants.
“The meat we purchase for the restaurants is purchased through a food distributor and I have to buy 30 to 50 pound increments,” said Goldberg. “But there are other items like lettuce – I don’t want to go to King Soopers for that because it won’t be cost-effective and if I purchase through a distributor I have to buy much more and half of it might go to waste.”
While Goldberg works the front of the house at Rye Society, Gabe Enlow is the Chef De Cuisine further west on Boulder’s Pearl Street at Centro Mexican Kitchen.
“As a chef, I’ve always felt a responsibility to control food waste and minimize it by cross-utilizing items on the menu,” said Enlow
When it comes to waste, Enlow says Centro has had a slight advantage over some Colorado eateries because it’s part of a relatively large group of local restaurants.
“We were less affected because we remained open in certain locations and were able to manage the food but it’s reiterated that as a chef you have to be mindful of waste,” noted Enlow. “When you’re in a busier environment with 100 percent capacity you’re moving the product faster, so now we’ve had to be mindful of how much to bring in and how it’s cross-utilized on the menu.”
If nothing else, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of a community having an organization like Boulder’s Food Rescue. Lou Creech says Food Rescue works with certain grocers and restaurants to redistribute food that would otherwise go to waste.
“Boulder Food Rescue saw a greater outreach from restaurants to donate surplus food as they closed or prepared to close,” said Creech. “At grocery stores, we saw a significant decrease in surplus donations because of supply chain issues but those donations have mostly returned to pre-March 2020 levels. We also formed partnerships with farmers who had surplus food. We haven’t gotten more donations since COVID-19, but we have gotten donations from different and new sources, not just grocery stores.”
Grocery stores and restaurants supply Boulder Food Rescue with leftover bread and pastries, fruit and vegetables picked up by couriers for Food Rescue. It’s then loaded into a courier’s bike trailer or their car and hauled to one of 36 recipient sites that serve low-income members of the community as well those experiencing homelessness. Creech says when it came to what and where food would be available, the pandemic created a domino effect and required a juggling act.
“We had to say, ‘this can’t go here but it can go here,’ and that’s where the idea came from to get more food from farmers. It’s was a domino effect and we had to trust that the food would come.”
There are always going to be some grocery stores that mismanage purchases and some restaurants that serve too much food. Chef Enlow says pandemic or no pandemic, waste requires vigilance.
“It’s a never-ending process of thinking outside the box and thinking of ways not to waste food and still drive revenue when you have a fraction of the capacity you normally have,” said Enlow. “But it’s also taught us to be smarter about food safety and food handling.”
Goldberg at Rye Society says as an owner and a frequent guest at restaurants he sees both sides of the problem.
“Some people will see waste, others will see value,” said Goldberg. “One side might say we’re not giving them enough food for what we’re charging, and the other side says you’re giving me too much food and it’s going to go to waste. As an operator, I want my guests to feel we’re giving them every single penny worth of food, and I don’t want to waste it and I don’t want my guests to waste it either.”
The vaccine for COVID-19 has renewed optimism that the headaches and heartaches food providers have endured will come to an end, but Enlow says right now, it’s not over.
“Everything during this has kept you on your toes, you have to be constantly thinking – almost relentlessly,” said Enlow.