Saudi Arabian entrepreneurial passions are beginning to spark in the sustainable food management space, currently a largely untapped niche for local innovation.
Globally, experts agree that property-specific or micro-level metrics and figures detailing food waste are necessary to further develop the sustainable food management movement.
Fresh (Food service impact Rating for Environmentally Sustainable Hospitality events) is a global first-of-its-kind metric developed by Sanaa Pirani, a Jeddah-based hospitality research expert. Published in 2016 as a Cornell University Centre for Hospitality research tool, it evaluates the sustainability of food service events within the hospitality industry. With its live, localised, data-rich indicators, the metric can compare various parameters and help progress towards sustainable food service operations.
The lower an event’s Fresh scores, the more sustainable it is. Fresh is calculated using seven sub-indicators. The portion-size sub-indicator, for example, compares expected versus actual amounts of food eaten by guests – and accordingly advises kitchen staff on better syncing portion sizes between the two. As part of Ms Pirani’s research, Fresh was calculated for several events in Abu Dhabi, where she completed her PhD in food waste management for the hospitality industry. The values were corroborated with on-site observations. Breakfast buffets – Fresh=0.055 – for instance, were more sustainable than lunch buffets – Fresh=0.605.
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Ms Pirani says food waste analysis and prevention remains low on the hospitality industry’s priority list.
Even in places where the importance of food waste management is becoming more understood, the majority of properties such as hotels and restaurants are still not measuring relevant data. “Establishments did not know how much they were wasting, but they knew it was a lot – so they were getting composting machines instead of taking pro-active measures,” she says.
“Given that food-related data is scarce, Fresh remains another great tool gracing prestigious publications, but unleveraged by commercial kitchens towards tangible cost and resource savings.”
Rice plays a central role in local cuisine. Mounds of it give traditional dishes the lavishly generous appearance associated with Arab hospitality.
The meat or fish in such dishes is generally eaten, while the generous beds of rice are largely wasted – the quantity offered driven more by aesthetics than need-based planning. To reduce rice waste, entrepreneurs have remodelled the oversized traditional platter, or sahan, that local dishes like mandi, kabsa or ouzi would be served in. Sahan Mashal, developed by Mashal Alkharashi, is an example. The platter's raised, convex base reduces the volume of rice served and thus wasted by 30 per cent – while maintaining the culturally requisite aura of abundance. Mr Alkharashi says food preservation initiatives are well received by locals – the platter has received encouraging support at the household level. "Restaurants, however, have no incentive to change the status quo and save food, because rice is subsidised and cheap," he says. He says about 70 per cent of Sahan Mashal customers are general retailers, with restaurants making up the rest.
With more than 100,000 platters sold in the 12-month period since it was released in 2016, this apparently tiny step has saved over 3,000 tonnes of rice, Mr Alkharashi estimates.
But that could be drastically increased if the hospitality industry had more incentive to be socially conscious, he believes. Both regulatory and demand-side pressures are necessary to bring the tide of change needed in the industry, he says.
The public demand side seems to be there: people have even brought their Sahan Mashals to restaurants and events where food is served and insisted on them being used to serve their meals, Mr Alkharashi says. Government regulations, however, are still needed to enforce food waste reduction, especially commercial wastage.
If an individual initiative such as Sahan Mashal can achieve such a significant saving, the future is ripe for an increase in entrepreneurial activity – while each small effort is a drop in the ocean of better food management, each drop is a valuable one.