by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 16, 2017

Cheryl-Anne Sturkenfood being brushed into a garbage canFor decades, the U.S. hotel industry has pursued LEED certification as its hallmark of green practices, with LEED Platinum certification being the ultimate badge for helping to save the planet's water, energy and vital resources. Now, the American Hotel & Lodging Association is nudging its hotel members to take a hard look at going one step further and reducing their food waste, and donating leftovers to local charities allowed under the federal Good Samaritan Act.

This week, at a reception held at the Sofitel New York, which included a panel discussion, the AH&LA unveiled the results of a new 12-week-long pilot program, undertaken with the World Wildlife Fund and the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, titled Hotel/Kitchen: Fighting Food Waste in Hotels. According to the 66-page report, U.S. hotels serve some $35 billion worth of food in catering and banquets every year, making them ideal candidates to drive waste distribution and reshape the food-service industry. "This is not about one or two hotels making a difference," said Pete Pearson, director of food waste at the WWF. "We are after an entire industry, and the hotel industry is taking this challenge very seriously."

Ten hotels, from brands including Fairmont, Hilton, Hyatt and Kimpton, took part in this first-of-its-kind program. Several were major meeting properties, such as the 1,641-room Hyatt Regency Orlando, which has 315,000 square feet of meeting space. After WWF food-waste observers audited one of the hotel's large buffet-style events, the hotel's F&B team realized that by analyzing the first-day orders of attendees of the same multi-day meetings, they could cut production by 25 percent, which resulted in a major decrease in leftover or uneaten food.

"One of the biggest causes of food waste at events is attendees who register but don't show up," Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president, corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts International told me as we chatted after the presentation. "Meeting planners need to educate their attendees about this. I think if they knew their 'no show' resulted in food waste, they might think before checking off they will attend."

The toolkit developed for hoteliers as part of the initiative encourages them to ask planners for accurately forecasted head counts for each meal, use software to track meal-by-meal attendance and report food overproduction back to planners, so they can better predict food-consumption pattern for future events. According to the report, the 10 participating properties saw food reductions of between 17 percent and 38 percent, something AH&LA believes can be replicated at other properties.

According to Larry Eells, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells (Calif.) Resort & Spa and a panelist at the event, a cultural shift in the approach to events is long overdue. "Putting out enormous amounts of food on buffets, and the use of food as decoration, has got to change," he told me. "Planners, attendees, everyone needs to be more aware of the food waste involved in the buffet concept. Small plates and action stations are a much better way to go."