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Food-ordering formula could lessen food waste in buffet-style eateries

 

Planning food production schedules for all-you-care-to-eat facilities is a notoriously difficult process. These are facilities where food is served in a buffet or pick-and-choose style, such as college cafeterias, prison food lines and military mess halls. Operators of these facilities don’t have itemized sales figures for each item, making ordering non-reusable food items more difficult. These operators tend to work on the premise that waste hauling is their only expense when they produce too much of an item.

But, with sustainability becoming a larger concern, what happens when you factor in the environmental cost of those food items? That’s what researchers at the University of Missouri found out in a recent paper, “Inferring shortfall costs and integrating environmental costs into optimal production levels for an all-you-care-to-eat food service operation.” Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering doctoral student Esma Birisci and Assistant Professor Ronald McGarvey wrote the paper, which appeared in a recent edition of the International Journal of Production Economics.

Photo of Esma Birisci

Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering doctoral student Esma Birisci, pictured, and Assistant Professor Ronald McGarvey wrote “Inferring shortfall costs and integrating environmental costs into optimal production levels for an all-you-care-to-eat food service operation.”

The study specifically looked at those items which can’t be stored for quality control and health code reasons and reused again; specifically, they examined three case studies: fried potatoes, chicken and beef in the respective forms of French fries, chicken sandwiches and beef ravioli.

Research found that optimal production levels decreased significantly for items that have a high environmental cost to produce, such as beef, with the environmental cost being calculated in terms of carbon dioxide emissions embodied in the creation of that food product.

McGarvey said for French fries, production levels decreased by about 10 percent when environmental costs were factored in. With higher environmental-cost items such as beef, the levels decreased by as much as 25 percent. The research also suggests that facility operators using this formula likely would be more willing to overproduce in terms of plant-based products than meat-based products.

Portrait of Ron McGarvey

Assistant Professor Ron McGarvey said for French fries, production levels decreased by about 10 percent when environmental costs were factored in. With higher environmental-cost items such as beef, the levels decreased by as much as 25 percent.

“We know when you throw away a pound of beef, you’re not just throwing away a pound of beef but also what we call these embodied resources,” McGarvey said. “It took however many pounds of corn to grow the cow to the state where you can get a pound of beef out of it. Moreover, to get that 100 pounds of corn, there was a tractor burning diesel fuel, and to build the tractor (required) energy and steel.

“If the cost of overproduction goes up, that means you’re less likely to overproduce. You’re more likely to accept a shortfall a small percentage of the time.”

As pressure potentially mounts — from either governmental sources or public concern — to increase sustainability, environmental costs will need to be taken into account. And the industry has taken notice. CBORD, a leading provider of food service management software, selected the work of IMSE and the MU Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs on campus dining food waste as one of three finalists for its 2016 Visionary Award. McGarvey has a joint appointment in public affairs at MU.

“Everybody recognizes environmental considerations are important. To date, these decisions are based on the disposal cost of overproduced food,” McGarvey said. “To the extent that environmental considerations are going to start to factor into your decision making, whether that’s an internal decision or whether that’s imposed from outside, it’s going to require some rethought in terms of your production planning for food items.”