By Spencer Robinson '20
In the second installment of his food sustainability blog series, Spencer Robinson explores how the management of Stanford’s Russo Cafe is minimizing food waste and donating it to local communities.
I follow Chris LeBoa, one of SSS’s food project coordinators, and his cart into Russo Café and the staff greet us warmly. They all know him well and are happy to see him. Minutes later, Chris and I get to work. My nose is overcome by the exotic, sweet-smelling flavors of the vegetable stew that we pour into aluminum food trays. The smell reminds me that it's a good thing that someone else will have the chance to enjoy this. Chris and I are there to collect that leftover “food waste” as a part of SPOON--the Stanford Program on Hunger. I came to investigate the role of our cafes on campus in food waste and interviewed Chad, the current manager for Russo Café, as well as Melissa, one of the café’s employees.
Stanford has a total of 11 retail cafes that provide meals for us on campus. Russo Café is open for lunch from 11am-2pm everyday of the work week. I learned from Chad that quite a bit of work goes into planning food production at the cafés on campus. According to Chad, Russo “tries not to produce more food than necessary.” The café has a two-week rotating menu and the management team looks at figures of sales of specific food items for past weeks to help them determine how much food to make for the future. Salmon, for example, is one of the more popular options at Russo, so they know to make a lot of it. One of Russo’s assets is the flexibility of the chefs in the kitchen - they can cook up more food in real time if there is higher demand during lunch hours. Moreover, produce is ordered on a daily basis so all that is ordered is usually used for that day. Chad also noted that a lot of the staff have established careers here and thus also have an incentive to make sure that the café is being profitable. Since food waste results in higher costs, reducing waste is best for the café from a business perspective. This is in huge contrast to Chad’s previous job at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. There, he found that employees were a lot more wasteful because they weren’t as concerned about costs to the restaurant. Needless to say, excess food thrown out also incurs environmental costs due to a waste of water, land and energy to grow, harvest and distribute it.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible for Chad to predict exactly what and how much food that their customers will eat. What adds complexity to the problem is that Russo Café produces food for 3 additional locations on campus: The Law School Café, Alumni Café and Forbes Family Café. Understanding how much food should go where and for what costs is a larger issue. Most of the kitchen is used by Stanford Catering, and Chad thinks they probably produce more waste since event organizers prefer not to run out of food for guests. One more layer of complexity is that there are restrictions as to which food can be donated - often it has to do with the temperature conditions that a portion of food has been kept under. But overall, food waste increases costs to the cafés, so they seem to do all they can to minimize it.
Melissa informed me that SPOON started collecting food from Russo approximately 4 months ago. Before SPOON asked them to participate, Melissa said “We tossed it and it was a shame because it was a lot of food”. Now their leftovers are being put to better use. When I visited, we collected approximately 2 trays of stew, 2 trays of salad, a few small trays of sides, and a few chickens. We collected all of their food waste that day. Compost is of course one way to recycle nutrients, but SPOON’s donation seems to be a more equitable and socially responsible choice. SPOON collects food from Russo, Law School Café, the Faculty Club and several Dining Halls on Campus, including Ricker and Wilbur. They store it in the Haas Center’s freezer and then it is transferred to the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto which annually provides food for individuals and families with limited funds to buy food.
Russo Café’s cooperation with SPOON is an important step in the right direction in terms of social justice. According to the National Resources Defence Council, 40% of food goes uneaten while 1/8 of Americans still struggle to put enough food on the table. The terrible wastefulness in our food system is shockingly apparent. How does it make sense for so much food to be thrown away if there is still a large portion of the population that needs more choices (especially more healthy choices)? A lot of the food we collected from Russo such as their salads, soups and sandwiches are great food options to donate because they do indeed provide healthier options which are needed to reduce problems of poor life expectancy and high obesity rates, as described in my previous blog post.
My hope is that this food donation program continues to extend to all of Stanford’s dining establishments. It is a practical way to share the nutritious healthy food options accessible to us on a daily basis. Its beyond question that we, as individuals, and food services providers, should do whatever we can to make what is a shame to throw out, a joy to give.
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