Waste Not, Want Not
How Zoos and Aquariums Are Reducing Food Waste

By Julie Ritzer Ross

Spurred by spiraling ingredient costs and a desire to be more environmentally responsible, zoos and aquariums are striving to minimize food waste by visitors and also behind the scenes.

“It’s definitely an issue we have to address,” said Vicki Jones, whose responsibilities as guest services manager for BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, Baton Rouge, La., includes overseeing all concessions. The zoo attracts an average of 250,000 visitors each year. In addition to local residents, it serves tourists taking in the sights in Baton Rouge as well as in New Orleans, situated 84 miles from the city by car. Because Baton Rouge lies 45 minutes from the Louisiana/Mississippi border, many guests also travel to the zoo from locations just over the “line,” Jones said. Were these visitors to travel to a zoo in their home state, they would need to undertake a three-hour car trip to the Jackson Zoological Park in Jackson.

Jones deemed careless procurement of condiment packets by guests among her biggest food waste challenges. “People take too many and don’t use them, (often) letting them fall to the ground to be stomped upon,” she stated.

To combat this problem, the zoo recently replaced the packets with pump dispensers and small portion control cups for mayonnaise, ketchup and the like. Jones said it is too soon to comment on the effectiveness of this strategy, but she believes it will help to dissuade diners from taking far greater quantities of condiments than they really need.

Portion control in the kitchen has also been an issue at BREC, with a combination of equipment tweaks and employee training now leveraged to address it. About two years ago, Jones noticed that staff often prepared the zoo’s popular nachos with excessive amounts of canned chili and cheese sauce. This was especially true when customers, watching as the chili and cheese were ladled on, insisted that extra quantities of the toppings be added to their food.

“Now, instead of heating up cans of chili and sauce and leaving it to employees about how much to use, as well as risking having to throw away unused ingredients, we buy the chili and sauce in bags and use a machine that meters out “X” amount of chili and “X” amount of cheese sauce,” Jones stated. Customers who want more chili and/or cheese must pay a surcharge.

Similarly, a problem with ice cream floats has been solved  by showing employees how much ice cream is to be used to prepare a small-, medium- and large-size serving. Samples are available for reference.

Moreover, to minimize the need to discard unserved food at closing time, Jones and her staff utilize sales reports from the same date the previous year to gauge cooking requirements for any given day. All food purchased less than 90 minutes before the zoo closes is cooked to order. “This way,” Jones said, “we don’t have extra hamburger patties, hot dogs, etc. that need to go into the garbage.”

Meanwhile, customer excesses present headaches at The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Nashville, Tenn. Attendance in 2013 totaled 776,855 guests, with zoo members ranking as the venue’s most frequent visitors.

Paul Karros, general manager for the zoo, cited guests’ misuse of beverage promotions that feature unlimited refills as the most significant contributor to waste on the foodservice front. “They tend to take more than they need, and then throw out much of that,” he observed.

To minimize such occurrences, Karros recently opted to replace large “unlimited refill cups” with smaller ones. “By controlling the size of the portion, we can effectively control waste,” he asserted.

He added that constant monitoring of waste, and making adjustments as needed, constitutes one key strategy for putting a lid on waste. “Things change; what wasn’t a problem at one point can become one,” Karros said.

The zoo does not donate leftover food to a local food bank on a regular basis, but this does happen occasionally. “When we have large events, we may have extra items that are appropriate for donation,” Karros noted. “However, most of the time, we don’t have enough waste for this to be an option.”

Elsewhere in the United States, the St. Louis Zoo hosted 3.2 visitors last year, the second highest in its more than 100 years of operation. In 2012, more than 3.5 million guests walked through the zoo’s gates. Sixty-three percent of visitors to the venue reside in St. Louis and its suburbs.

“Some of our food waste issues come from large catering events; since unique foods are prepared, we are unable to utilize all the leftovers,” reported Ken Stover, director of food services. “However, we do use some of that food in zoo restaurants,” thereby mitigating the waste factor.

The zoo has donated leftovers to food banks when large amounts of food remained following big catering events, and will continue to do so. No such program is in place for daily leftovers, though, as seasonality and the effects of weather conditions on attendance render the need for it inconsistent.

In the zoo’s restaurants, best practices for day-to-day waste control encompass batch-cooking foods throughout operating hours and harnessing historical sales records that show product movement on similar days with like weather conditions. “We might sell 1,000 hot dogs on a busy Saturday, but they are cooked 25 at a time,” Stover explained. “And by having the proper food products prepped for service” (based on the reports), “batch cooking is smooth, orderly” and less prone to glitches that lead to discarding overcooked or underutilized food or ingredients.

In a further attempt to curb waste and foster sustainability, the zoo’s foodservice department is preparing to kick off a food composting program in its kitchens. Once a renovation of one of the zoo’s restaurants has wrapped up this spring, the initiative will be extended to the front of the house. Waste that currently ends up in landfills (including post-consumer food scraps, serving ware, utensils and napkins) will be diverted to St. Louis Composting for processing. “Later, we plan to introduce composting in the zoo’s other foodservice outlets across the campus,” said Wanda Evans, sustainability coordinator.

Food composting has also become a food waste management and sustainability practice at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, where the visitor count reached 2.015 million, according to Susan Barton, director of facilities. An estimated 82 percent of individuals who flocked to the aquarium last year traveled from beyond the city of Chicago; of these guests, 13 percent were from outside the U.S. A total of 114,214 Illinois schoolchildren, 60,525 of whom  are enrolled in Chicago’s public schools, were admitted to the venue in 2013.

“We send our food-prep waste and scraps to a compost facility rather than a landfill,” Barton stated. “You won’t find trash cans in our cafes; guests drop off their trays on a conveyor system so we can sort their waste behind the scenes” and ensure that scraps are properly composted.

Because food waste in the preparation stages had been a challenge, a food waste tracking system is used in the cafes to keep tabs on whether excessive quantities of certain items and ingredients appropriately match usage and consumption requirements. –

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