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Local businesses, agencies work to cut down on food waste

by Tory Brecht

Watching perfectly good, tasty Italian dinners pitched in the garbage on a nightly basis at the Davenport Olive Garden restaurant used to make general manager Patti Shellabarger wince.

Wrong sauce on that linguine? Into the trash. Calamari rather than scampi accidentally served? Garbage.

Since May, however, kitchen and waiter mix-ups have been bagged, frozen and delivered to the Cafe John Lewis meal site in downtown Davenport along with more than 100 pounds of other food that otherwise would be thrown out per week.

"We want to make sure to do our part to help people and not be wasteful," Shellabarger said. "It just makes you feel so good. We used to just throw it right in the garbage. This makes me feel so much better."

Food waste - both pre- and post-consumer - is rampant in the United States, with a recent national study indicating that 40 percent of all food produced in this country ends up being thrown away or otherwise lost.

It's a big problem in Iowa as well.

Tom Gruca, an associate professor of marketing at the Tippe College of Business at the University of Iowa, said that while many food manufacturing and processing companies and restaurants are concerned about waste, how they deal with it varies wildly.

Increased portion sizes at restaurants - where low wholesale prices allow restaurateurs to pack more and more on a plate and charge more without significantly increasing their costs - plus a push from consumers for fresher (and thus more perishable) food products are two factors driving waste.

"Compare Subway to McDonald's," he said. "At McDonald's, they pull food out of a freezer while Subway has all these fresh toppings," he said. "Two days later, Subway's lettuce has to be thrown away while that McDonald's hamburger is still in the freezer."

Food waste is also a problem long before it gets to the restaurant or supermarket, said Rich Pirog, a researcher at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

The shift from local to non-local food sources, as well as changes in eating habits, contributes to the problem, he said.

"If we were eating more seasonably, like we used to, there would be a lot less spoilage," he said. "But now we want to eat foods out of season and it has to be shipped.

"When you look at that from a waste standpoint, food would stay fresher longer if it was grown here."

But attitudes about food waste are beginning to change, said Julie Plummer, who works for the Iowa Waste Exchange, a grant-funded program of the Eastern Iowa Community College District.

Her job is to match up industries creating waste with users who need the material.

For example, she works with two eastern Iowa food-producing companies that send their waste to compost facilities around the state.

"I've matched things like fermented grape juice and noodles that are used for livestock feed," she said. "I do send a lot of other food waste from warehouses that have out-of-date or otherwise-inedible food to a livestock broker here in Scott County."

Over the past two years, Iowa officials have been looking at ways to reduce food waste, including economic incentives to make producers more environmentally conscious and grant programs for those that participate in waste exchange programs.

Plummer is optimistic the 40 percent food waste figure can be slashed.

"I think certainly, with a change in people's mind-set about reuse, that number could easily be cut in half," she said.

Donating food to pantries also helps restaurants reduce costs, said Shellabarger and Brad Lybbert, general manager of the Red Lobster in Davenport.

When the restaurants began sending soon-to-be discarded food to John Lewis, they gained a better grasp of what items regularly undersold, allowing them to adjust their wholesale orders.

"It really opens your eyes to see how many items you don't use," Lybbert said.

But cutting costs is not the only reason for donating, he said

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