Sustainability, Food Waste and the U.S. Foodservice Industry

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Nearly everyone in the food and agriculture space has been talking about sustainability for many years, but we tend to have little agreement on what it means and how meaning changes depending on the target audience. Some will argue that organic production has the least environmental impact. Others will claim local production has the most merits. What we can all agree upon is that this is an extraordinarily complex issue with few simple answers or solutions.

Foodservice leaders were focused for many years on marketing plant-based menu items to attract diners demanding food with lower environmental impact. When research revealed that “plant-based” means vegan to about one-third of diners, the industry sought a more inclusive term that wouldn’t alienate people who love meat. Many started talking about “plant-forward” menus to indicate the menus put an emphasis on plants, but they don’t exclude animal-based ingredients. Unfortunately, this term, while appreciated by culinary and nutrition leaders, wasn’t embraced or widely understood by consumers.

A new trend in foodservice marketing is talking about carbon and “climate-smart” eating, but this narrative is often driven by global companies using global data on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. It’s also communicated through a lens of marketing, not lifecycle assessments and other rigorous evaluations of environmental impact that take into account multiple metrics.

One issue that if taken seriously would have significant impact on reducing the environmental impact of foodservice operations is food waste, but it has been nearly impossible to gain traction on an issue that flies in the face of anyone wanting to market value. Large portions of relatively inexpensive food are easy to waste, for both the operator and the consumer. The operator has covered the cost of the food through the sale of the food, and the consumer who paid a relatively small price for the food doesn’t seem to care much if part of the meal is thrown out after his or her hunger has been satisfied. (Yes, hunger is a serious issue in this country; I’m talking about food secure people who don’t like leftovers and don’t understand the value of all the inputs that go into producing food in this country.)

Of all wasted food, the largest portion comes from uneaten food discarded in homes (43%), followed by food wasted at restaurants, estimated at 16% of all wasted food by ReFed, a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the U.S. food system. The only operators I’ve seen take this issue seriously are college campuses, which removed trays in the early 2000s as a way to control food costs as well as the likelihood of the “freshman 15” weight gain, and operators who evaluated smaller portions as a way to reduce waste management costs.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist with extensive culinary training, I just want people to eat more fruits and vegetables in all their glorious forms with every meal and snack across every day part and meal part.

According to the USDA, the category of foods most likely to be wasted include fruits and vegetables. For the growers who have spent countless hours worrying about labor, water, and host of other production issues, it must be heart breaking to think about your pears, cherries, lettuce, tomatoes, etc., going into a landfill. And for all of us hoping Americans will increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, knowing they throw out a large portion of what they buy, is completely defeating.

So, what can be done about this? I’ll go back to issues I’ve addressed in many previous columns. First, we need all culinary leaders to focus more intently on the culinary techniques and ingredients that make fruits and vegetables even more delicious. Stop steaming the broccoli and use your culinary talents to apply more technique and ingredients that make it the most craveable item on a plate.

Second, we need to stop thinking and saying that fruits and vegetable must be grown a certain way, processed a certain way, prepared a specific way, or eaten a certain way for them to be “good for us.” As a registered dietitian nutritionist with extensive culinary training, I just want people to eat more fruits and vegetables in all their glorious forms with every meal and snack across every day part and meal part. Love your broccoli with cheese sauce? Great! Eat it like that! Love to dip your French fries in blue cheese dressing? Awesome! Ask your waiter for more blue cheese dressing! Your child loves dipping his apple slices in caramel sauce? Great! Buy more apples, and while you’re at it, buy more caramel sauce.

I will stop this rant here and now, but you can bet on the fact I’ll be sharing more about my insights on these issues in future columns.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a member of the Texas A&M AgriLife External Advisory Board and a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council. You can learn more about her business at, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller