The business side of food waste

Our Table panelist Sriram Narayanan discusses how business concepts can be applied to reducing food waste in corporate settings.

Sriram Narayanan, an associate professor of supply chain management in Michigan State University’s (MSU) Eli Broad College of Business, believes that addressing food waste is rooted in working to balance supply and demand.

Narayanan was a panelist at Food@MSU’s March 21 Our Table event on food waste. He is part of the Broad Integrative Fellows Program, where he has collaborated with colleagues from other departments within the business college to write a teaching case that can be analyzed from various perspectives, including finance, marketing and supply chain. The case focused on the food waste and sustainability practices of a large hotel chain.

“Teaching cases are examples where you can show illustrative scenarios to students,” he said. “They are real problems that we actually take into the classroom and talk to students about what you could do, but there could be elements in the teaching case that may not be precise.”

Narayanan said teaching cases are used to explore options and get students to think about a specific problem. In this case, the objective was to research the interdisciplinary business concepts related to food waste.

“We usually make one thing clear about teaching cases -- they are not indicative of good or bad management practices,” he said.

Narayanan believes the desire of consumers to have food prepared and ready in a short time has an impact on the amount of food that’s wasted in corporate settings.

“I think there is this notion of instantaneous production and consumption,” he said. “If we have extra food, we know we can keep it in the fridge and that’s our inventory. We go back the next day and we eat the leftovers. But when we start talking about corporate environments, we can’t necessarily do that. Then you have to predict how much food offtake will be there.”

This means that business owners and managers must navigate the balance of supply and demand to avoid running out of food and driving customers away.

“What we tend to do is figure out how much we need, how many people will show up and we want to balance that with what we currently keep,” Narayanan said. “Unfortunately, with food, the problem is you can’t keep much because it can go bad quickly.”

The case study revealed that people want to see a full selection of food. That, combined with not knowing how much food will be eaten over the course of a given day, can be challenging for businesses.

“When you start producing more and more and more, we have this behavioral reaction that we don’t want to run out. You produce even more, and you sort of have large variations in consumption,” said Narayanan.

Another challenge is that consumers oftentimes feel the need to have portions that align with how much they are spending on a meal.

“[For instance, if] I’m paying you more, I would also expect larger portions,” Narayanan said. “I don’t think about how much I’m eating.”

Narayanan notes that developing mechanisms to help manage the consumer mindset around food waste could help reduce waste and, in some cases, make it easier for businesses to estimate how much food is necessary.

“[It] could be an app, or it could be scenarios recognizing that they are wasting less food,” he said. “It could also be building communities where consumers can maybe talk to each other about reducing waste in some form.”

Source reduction, the idea of making only what you need and the most preferred tier of the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, is another concept to explore when looking at food waste through a business lens.

“Basically, when you say reduce it at the source, you don’t produce what you don’t need,” said Narayanan.

A similar concept of taking only what you need can also be applied to the consumer. Although large portion sizes in the U.S. can make this difficult, it’s a bit easier to practice at home.

“We have a 5-year-old and one of the rules we have in our house is that you cannot get up until you finish what’s on your plate,” Narayanan said. “You can ask for less. If you ask for more, you’ve got to eat it.”

Narayanan believes consumers will waste less food if they put a concerted effort into it, be it making more conscientious decisions, evaluating what food isn’t necessary or another method.

“If you have a consumer mindset where you’re asking for more all the time and you’re ok with throwing things away, that becomes a mindset that you carry on,” he said.

Our Table is a series of public roundtable discussions in which Michigan State University brings together food experts, agricultural producers, health professionals and community members to listen to each other and foster dialogue. It is part of Food@MSU, a campus-wide initiative led by the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, and Communication Arts and Sciences that aims to help consumers make more informed decisions about food, and its impacts on health and the planet.

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