Dianne McGrath is conducting the first review of Australian restaurants and eateries to determine how much food is wasted, why and what can be done about it.
What is your current research focus?
My current research, Watch My Waste, focuses on food waste in the hospitality sector in Australia. Watch My Waste is a national research project, and includes almost all types of hospitality businesses, including cafes, restaurants, pubs, catering and take away.
Participating businesses use a simple app to record how much food they throw away which will help determine some of the key contributing factors to food waste generation.
What’s your goal - what do you seek to learn?
Data on food waste in hospitality is scarce in Australia and most of what exists is derived from estimates.
Through Watch My Waste, we will examine how much food is thrown away at different stages of the food production process through spoilage, preparation waste and customer plate waste covering breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What is your approach in your work
My work applies the theory of Reflexivity, which essentially posits that what you measure, you change. The hypothesis is that when individuals start monitoring their own food waste at regular intervals, they will start to reduce it.
Explain the impact of your research - who will it affect and how?
Watch My Waste has the potential to have a very broad reaching effect. Participating businesses will gain from being involved with the research and can expect to see reductions in their food waste. As the research is designed so that the approach can be replicated in the everyday workplaces of any foodservice business at no financial cost, Watch My Waste has the opportunity to impact across the hospitality sector in Australia and internationally.
Most food waste created by the commercial sector goes to landfill. This creates a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions as it decomposes and methane is released.
If we can reduce the amount of food waste and the amount going to landfill, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has an effect well beyond the hospitality sector, but is something that can be led by the sector.
What drew you to this specific field?
I have expertise in environmental management, sustainable practice, food sustainability and food security; as well as in the commercial sector with experience in marketing, retail and hospitality; and the public sector in the energy and tourism arenas.
My deep interest in food waste was ignited after I read about the valuable work of OzHarvest, a food rescue organisation that diverts excess, still-consumable food from food businesses to charities that feed people. This seemed like such a logical solution to the excess frequently produced in the hospitality sector.
How has your work developed over the years?
Initially I sought to understand how much food was potentially available for donation to food rescue organisations, and why businesses choose to participate in such programs.
I saw patterns of behaviour and opportunities to improve the food waste diversion rates from landfill and the reduction of food waste overall. Simply pointing out a problem would not bring about the change that was needed. It had to be a case of self-discovery.
Why are finding sustainable food systems and practices important?
Most people think of food waste and the environmental impacts from the perspective of the end outputs - what is left on plates, thrown in bins and goes to landfill and worm farms. This ignores the vast resources required to grow, transport, store and prepare the food that individuals and businesses throw away every day. Wasting still consumable food when others are hungry is a moral issue.
Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your research? How did this come about?
It is still early days however there have been some interesting lessons already. Interim results show that almost three quarters of participating businesses had never done a food waste audit or assessment before commencing the research. Encouragingly, all had some systems in place to help reduce food waste back of house but there were very few initiatives to reduce food waste front of house. No businesses had multiple portion options available for customers, and just over a quarter taught staff to offer doggy bags.
What has been the proudest moment in your research career so far?
The recognition and support that Watch My Waste is starting to receive in the hospitality sector, at local government level, and in the broader community gives me hope that we can have a significant impact in reducing food waste. I am very proud and honoured to be able to help contribute to this.