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Getting food waste down to a science

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LeanPath system helps Oregon Zoo kitchens measure, photograph wasted product to help reduce its losses


PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Zoo executive chef Jonathan Dempsey weighs food waste that will be composted.The Oregon Zoo had a problem with corn dogs a few years ago. 

They'd produce a lot of corn dogs for visitors on peak days, but if it suddenly rained or if attendance dropped for some reason, all of the unsold corn dogs got tossed in the compost bin and were a huge waste of food, as well as money. 

Now, rather than prepare a whole day's worth of corn dogs, they cook them to order after peak time, around 1 p.m. 

It sounds simple, but hadn't been done before because it was "just habit," says John Sterbis, food and beverage manager for the Oregon Zoo. 

Food waste at any large institution or restaurant is a universal issue, Sterbis says, but the zoo found a way to get a handle on it four years ago, by implementing a Portland-based system called LeanPath. 

The company's equipment and software — the LeanPath 360 Food Waste Prevention System — allows the zoo to measure, track and analyze every bit of food waste in its kitchens, down to the last dollar. 

Now, thanks to the LeanPath data, an old oven that's consistently burning bacon is fixed; an employee who consistently burns the almonds is given a chat; and surplus catered food that would've gone to the compost bin is integrated into grill specials. 

"Waste happens, but we're fine-tuning it," says chef Jonathan Dempsey, who oversees the zoo's five kitchens. "The waste is minimal. It can't get any more minimal." 

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Green compost cans are used throughout the Oregon Zoo kitchen for food waste.Metro, which manages the zoo, is hoping to build on that success, launching a two-year pilot program that will help up to 10 large food producers in the region implement the LeanPath system. Metro's $2,000 rebates will help cover the cost of the LeanPath subscription, which is about $400 per month for large food producers like hotels, hospitals, colleges and public venues, as well as grocery stores. 

The pilot is part of Metro's larger effort to reduce food waste in the region. 

"Four to 10 percent of food purchases are typically thrown away before it reaches the guest," says Will Elder, Metro's business waste reduction planner. 

On average, LeanPath says its system cuts a typical company’s food waste in half and reduces food costs up to 6 percent.

Based in Southwest Portland since 2004, LeanPath Inc. has worked with public and private entities in nearly every U.S. state and internationally. But it’s kept a fairly low profile in the Portland area. 

Andrew Shakman, LeanPath's co-founder and chief executive officer, says the Metro pilot program will provide a unique incentive to local businesses. Rebates are common in the energy industry but are new to the realm of food waste. 

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Charts in the Oregon Zoo kitchen show how much food waste is created by food type."This takes the risk off the (food) generator, to say 'I can try this, to know I have a margin of error,' " Shakman says.

LeanPath's focus is on preventing food waste at the front end.

"It's invisible," Shakman says. "With waste prevention, when it's successful, you see nothing."

The system lets the data speak for itself by setting a baseline at the start and projecting it forward to see how much food costs and waste have decreased. 

At the Oregon Zoo, whenever anyone in the kitchen has food to discard, they put it in a container on the LeanPath scale and punch a few buttons to indicate their name, type of food and reason for throwing it away — whether it be overcooked, spoiled or overprepared.   

A camera attached to the LeanPath system snaps a photo of the food, records the weight and information, and then the food is tossed into the compost bin. 

Every two weeks, the data is uploaded and organized in five red bar graphs that are posted in each of the five zoo kitchens, for all 35 employees to see.

"When we first started enforcing this, it was all over the place," Dempsey says. It was common to see $50 in food waste per day. 

Now the charts show that it's typically between zero and $16, except for one anomaly: $125 of ground beef — about 30 pounds — that had to be thrown away one day the prior week, because a cooler went down. 

@jenmomanderson