BUSINESS:

Major food services group pushes sustainability into its kitchens

A California data management and consulting firm is helping the world's largest food services company better manage its carbon footprint by providing thousands of chefs and restaurant managers with detailed information on their carbon, energy, water and waste streams.

The Web-based software, or "dashboard," will allow nearly 10,000 cafes owned by the Compass Group North America of Charlotte, N.C., to monitor the environmental impacts associated with the preparation and delivery of tens of thousands of meals daily in restaurants and corporate and campus cafeterias across the country.

Compass Group NA, a subsidiary of the British food services conglomerate Compass Group PLC, owns roughly a dozen proprietary brands such as Mondo Subs and Outtakes, but it serves many more meals via its cafeterias and catering services to Fortune 500 companies -- including Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Caterpillar -- as well as dozens of universities, hospitals, sports arenas, museums and senior living centers.

In 2012, Compass Group NA reported revenues of $12 billion, and it employs 188,000 people throughout its U.S. and Canadian operations, according to the company's website.

Marc Zammit, vice president of corporate sustainability initiatives at Compass Group, said its Carbon FOODPrint tool kit was created in 2011 to respond to clients' growing interest in developing ways to measure, manage and lower their operational costs while at the same time reducing the size of the food services industry's environmental footprint.

"Commercial food service is a resource-intense operation, and our on-site teams will now be able to use this scalable tool kit to make their operation more sustainable by minimizing carbon impact, while at the same time implementing best practices that lower operational costs in the areas of menuing, energy, water and waste," he said.

During the program's first phase, chefs and kitchen managers were encouraged to implement best practices in one of four operational areas to shrink emissions, ranging from menu changes to adjusting the use of kitchen equipment to addressing nonkitchen activities like lighting and solid waste.

'An eye-opener' for chefs

As part of a new second phase, Compass worked with FirstCarbon Solutions, of Irvine, Calif., to create digital dashboard software that allows the food managers to monitor their emissions in real time and take steps to shrink their carbon footprints even more.

Zammit described the process as "an eye-opener" for chefs and food managers as they learn techniques to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from their operations and supply chain. For example, he said, a chef might retool a menu to eliminate large portions of beef, a carbon-intensive form of protein, and replace it with lower-carbon animal proteins like pork or chicken. Alternatively, kitchen mangers are getting smarter about turning on energy-hogging equipment only when needed.

"Just from an economics point of view, it's a no-brainer," Zammit said in a telephone interview. "But it's also about rethinking some of our long-held practices around running a kitchen. We don't need to turn everyone into a vegetarian to reduce our carbon footprint, but we can make certain changes in our menus and the way we go about preparing food to get a positive result."

Chet Chaffee, vice president of life cycle and greenhouse gas activities at FirstCarbon Solutions, the company that developed the software dashboards for the Carbon FOODPrint tool kit, said that while the food service industry draws less attention than the large industrial sectors like electric power producers, institutional kitchens are among the most carbon-intensive settings in the U.S. economy on a per-square-foot basis due to the high energy requirements of ovens, stoves, hoods, refrigerators, dishwashers and other equipment.

A 2011 study by the Oregon-based firm CleanMetrics estimated that food waste alone is responsible for 135 million tons of emissions every year, or roughly 1.5 percent of the world's greenhouse gas inventory. Those calculations did not, however, include waste from food consumed in restaurants or the energy used in cooking or packaging wasted food.

In 2010, Brighter Planet, a computational sustainability firm, estimated that 29 percent of greenhouse gases produced in the food sector come from the cooking and serving of food in restaurants and kitchens, while 3 percent of food-related emissions come from the decomposition of food in landfills, according to a white paper titled "The American Carbon Foodprint: Understanding and Reducing Your Food's Impact on Climate Change."

The 1-million-pound challenge

Increasingly, Chaffee said, companies and consumers are focused on not only the impacts associated with the direct consumption of food and beverages, but the life cycle of food production -- an accounting that includes emissions associated with growing crops and raising livestock, transporting food to market, freezer storage, food preparation, cooking, preparation and delivery of meals, materials and packaging, and waste management.

Chaffee said the software will allow chefs and managers of Compass Group to quickly analyze carbon emissions associated with their physical operations as well as their broader supply chains "from cradle to customer."

"The whole idea behind this is that chefs and managers don't have a lot of time," Chaffee said. "They want to do the right thing. They want to be sustainable. But they've got to serve food, and that consumes most of their attention."

The tool kit was designed to allow busy kitchen managers to quickly and efficiently input data about their operations that can be converted into estimates of carbon emissions as well as calculations of water consumed and waste generated by a cafe or restaurant.

Early reports from kitchen managers using the software are encouraging, said Zammit of Compass Group. One unidentified client with 40 locations around the country said it expected to save an estimated $375,000 in operating costs annually by making adjustments to both kitchen operations and customer-side equipment like lighting and HVAC systems.

The company will also issue an Earth Day challenge later this month to all its operations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 1 million pounds in six months. If successful, the challenge could net huge benefits for the environment and reduce bottom-line costs by tens of millions of dollars, he said.

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