Bon Appetit's new waste specialist sits on food industry's cutting edge

Claire Cummings has parlayed her role as Bon Appétit's West Coast Fellow into a waste and sustainability management role.

Claire Cummings may not even realize it yet but Bon Appétit's West Coast Fellow could be ready to change the world.

The food service industry world, that is. Cummings was recently appointed as the Bon Appétit Management Co's Waste Sustainability Specialist, a role that's fairly new within the industry's realm. She earned the spot through such projects as working with the Food Recovery Network, which recovers leftover food from college campuses to give to those in need. Cummings now serves on the group's advisory board.

She also helped establish the Chefs to End Hunger program at Bon Appétit’s cafés in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

Bon Appétit's Fellows typically help educate students on social and environmental food issues as well as new ideas regarding the food industry.

We emailed some questions past Cummings to gauge how she's going to go about her new role. Here are her answers (edited for brevity and clarity)

Sustainable Business Oregon: Talk about how your position was created. What are the expectations in your new job? And are sustainability/waste managers becoming more common in your industry?

Claire Cummings: I’m focused specifically on waste, not on general sustainability. My boss, Maisie Ganzler, who's vice president of strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company and president of the BAMCO Foundation, said she doesn't know of another food service company with someone so specialized. However, many companies are looking at waste reduction. It offers a double whammy of environmental benefit and cost savings.

SBO: Bon Appétit’s doing a nice job of using locally sourced items and otherwise behaving sustainably. Do you have any numerical goals to further BA’s performance in its sustainability efforts?

Cummings: Part of my position will be setting up numerical goals, and I currently have three areas of focus: food waste in our cafés, food recovery efforts, and waste reduction in the supply chain. Right now food recovery is my biggest focus because it both reduces waste and addresses hunger in the United States. In Seattle we are just one restaurant short of having every single Bon Appétit account in the city donating their leftover food (that would otherwise go to waste) to people in need.

I love seeing all our cafés in a city or region championing a waste initiative like food recovery, and I hope to see more in the future. Down the road, I will be setting goals for reducing waste in our kitchens and cafés as well as figuring out innovative ways to utilize items that get wasted on the farm and during distribution.

SBO: What are some of your favorite sustainability and waste management principles?

Cummings: Whenever I think about how to approach waste sustainability, I find myself going back to the EPA's food recovery hierarchy. Not all waste management practices are equally valuable, so this pyramid is a good reminder of what matters most, which is to stop waste from happening in the first place. Then when waste does occur, we want to find alternative uses and destinations for it rather than sending it to landfills. So: No. 1, prevent waste, No. 2, reduce waste and No. 3, divert waste.

Many people are familiar with is the saying “when in doubt, throw it out,” which I think is a poor approach to waste because it doesn’t hold people accountable for dealing with the waste they produce. For me, the saying ought to go “when in doubt, figure it out” so people recognize their role and responsibility in figuring out how to deal with their own waste.

SBO: What companies or people are some of your sustainability or waste management role models? Why?

Cummings: When I was attending Lewis & Clark College I interned with Steve Cohen from the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Food Policy and Programs. He was the first person who got me thinking about how waste plays an important role in a sustainable food system. He helped me see beyond farm to fork to start thinking about farm to fork to soil, the true lifecycle of food! More recently I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from Dani Turk, the Program Manager of Food Lifeline in Seattle. She and her staff are true innovators and came up with the model food recovery program (Seattle’s Table) through which Bon Appétit now donates our leftover food that would otherwise go to waste.

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