overflowing garbage dumpster
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Lean Food Service: Cut Overproduction, Feed the Hungry

By Jon Miller Updated on September 22nd, 2022

One of the informal definitions of Lean manufacturing is “doing more with less”. A Puget Sound Business Journal article titled Throw Out Less Food and Help the Less Fortunate made a lot of sense to me. It maps out some practical steps to achieving Lean food service and social good.
The article reports that according to research done by University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones, about one-third of Seattle’s residential waste and nearly 30% percent of commercial waste is food that is still edible.
This is clearly huge Muda (waste) since we are spending money and energy buying and making food, and then throwing some of it away. Like Taiichi Ohno said, overproduction is the greatest of the 7 wastes. It creates more of the other 6 wastes by generating unnecessary activity and consumes vital production resources and raw materials.

$100 billion in waste

According to the article, Americans throw away $100 billion worth of edible food each year. That’s $344 for every one of the 290 million Americans, or just under a dollar per day per person in food that we throw away. At the same time, the article reports that food banks struggle with shortfalls of food exceeding 1,000 pounds per week.

But the costs keep adding up. To dispose of this food in landfills for the city of Seattle cost $6 million in 2004. Why not stop this waste and spend the money on something better? The anthropologist, Mr. Jones, has worked with Seattle restaurants to determine the average amount that people ate and reduced the portion sizes accordingly. Extra food was provided to customers on request, for free. This saved restaurant costs (raw materials, disposal of excess) and also allowed them to contribute to food banks.

In the early 1990s when I was traveling full-time as a kaizen interpreter it didn’t take me longer than about two weeks of eating American portions at restaurants to figure out that I would eat myself to death if I kept it up. I grew up on fish and rice, so maybe I’m not typical. I cut back on portion sizes and lived to tell the tale.

What can be done?

What can we do to achieve Lean food service, and cut back on this ridiculous waste of food in America? Here I’ll invoke Taiichi Ohno again and say “Cut it in half.” Cutting your portion size in half and consuming what you want “just in time” by asking for seconds is a far more Lean and waste-free method than accepting the push-overproduction that is common in American foodservice today. Ask a weight-loss expert who is not peddling a book, a packaged food product, or an exercise machine and what they will tell you is that you can eat whatever you like, whenever you like, as long as you cut your portion sizes. I’m not qualified to give out medical advice, but this is a kaizen on my health that’s worked for over a decade of travel and eating out. Lean transformation in manufacturing, food service, or in personal health is a matter of developing new habits for cutting out waste every day.

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