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How Google saved over 6 million pounds of food waste in its cafés

Five years ago, Google starting measuring the quantity and value of food being tossed at its facilities. It’s still got a long way to go, but it’s an object lesson in how focusing on a problem can bring solutions.

How Google saved over 6 million pounds of food waste in its cafés
[Photo: courtesy Google]

In a kitchen at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, as chefs work on part of the lunch menu for the day–vegan fajitas over sapporo noodles, and a quinoa bowl–any ingredients that can’t be used end up in trays on a scale, where the staff tracks exactly how much food is wasted each day. It’s part of the company’s strategy to cut food waste as much as possible, part of its overall mission to become a more sustainable company. Over the last five years, the company calculates that it has avoided more than 6 million pounds of food going to landfills or compost.

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[Photo: courtesy Google]
Each day, the company serves more than 200,000 meals in its office cafés, from pulled pork tacos to lobster, and it recognizes that its operational scale makes food waste a critical problem to deal with both from an economic and environmental perspective. “We know [food waste] is such a massive global problem and even worse in the U.S.,” says Kristen Rainey, the global procurement and resource utilization manager for Google’s food program. Worldwide, around one-third of the global food supply is thrown out. “So we really feel like we have an obligation and an opportunity to take it seriously in everything we’re doing every day.”

[Photo: courtesy Google]
In 2014, Google started working with Leanpath, a company that provides equipment to measure and track food waste, and it coaches chefs on how to use that data. “Most chefs are deeply interested in food waste prevention–they were taught that food had value and you want to avoid wasting it, so that’s an instinct,” says Andrew Shakman, CEO of Leanpath. “But then they get into the day-to-day challenge of running a high-volume food service operation, and they typically don’t have a lot of time to spend analyzing data and understanding some of the trends.”

[Photo: courtesy Google]
Just collecting that data started to change kitchens. “The reality is that the act of measurement is, in and of itself, a very profound intervention,” Shakman says. “The moment that you ask someone to take the time to pay attention to food waste, you are communicating that that is a significant concern and an opportunity.” The dashboard on the equipment that weighs the food automatically displays the value of the wasted food, something that Rainey says gives additional motivation to chefs.

Using the data, teams can adjust how much food they’re ordering or begin to make other changes, including repurposing food for the next meal; leftover risotto might turn into arancini, or the stems from root vegetables might be used to make pesto or chimichurri sauce. Leftover bananas from one of the company’s “micro kitchens,” where employees make snacks, might be used in banana bread or added to other leftover fruit at a DIY crepe bar. At a juice bar, whole carrots go into blenders along with the carrot tops, and dehydrated fruit pulp can become a powder to add to other food.

The company also sources some foods that reduce waste earlier in the system, like a type of nutrient-rich flour made from coffee cherries, the fruit around coffee beans that is normally wasted. “For us, that’s a huge win because it’s providing jobs in a coffee-growing community, it’s using a waste product that might otherwise just have rotted, and then it’s actually making some items more nutritious than they would be otherwise,” says Rainey. Chefs have experimented with using the flour in brownies, tortillas, and other foods. “We’re really trying to think about items that we could scale so that we could actually be using a significant amount of the product and make a difference,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy Google]
At the cafés, chefs cook in batches to avoid preparing too much food, and adjust through a meal. Near the end of lunch, they might change to shallower pans at the salad bar. “It’s still giving an impression of abundance, but it’s actually much less likely to have tons left over,” says Rainey. Many of the changes focus on what happens in the kitchen, but the company is also beginning to work on the problem of employees throwing food out–something that can be even more of a challenge when everything on the menu is free and there’s no financial incentive to eat what you paid for. In some cafés, employees have the choice of smaller plates, something that can also help people eat less. The company serves some foods, like desserts, in smaller portions. In some cafes, it works with Leanpath to measure wasted food, not only in kitchens, but also at the point where employees return plates, and then uses a digital display to track that waste so it’s visible to diners when they order. “We’ve worked with behavioral scientists to optimize the messaging to figure out what is most likely to cause people to pay attention and take only what they need,” Shakman says.

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The Leanpath systems are now in daily use in 189 of Google’s cafés, in 26 countries. “We know that this is a daily habit that has to be kept central in people’s minds, and measurement does that,” Shakman says. As menus and staff change, the system keeps the focus on waste. “It’s not just about discovering an insight once and then fixing it and moving on. It’s really about continuous learning and improvement.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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