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Sodexo doubles down on food recovery as clients shut doors amid pandemic

With school closures and companies mandating employees to work from home, the facilities management company's food waste reduction efforts have even more relevance.

When the University of Massachusetts Boston decided to move classes online for the rest of the semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school’s dining service had roughly one to two pallets of fresh produce and dairy products on its hands. That food could go to waste, or it could go to an organization that accepts donations.

Looking for a solution, the executive chef for catering and retail at the university reached out to its facilities management company, Sodexo North America, which supplies its food. Sodexo put the dining service in touch with national nonprofit Food Recovery Network (FRN), which then looped in local nonprofit Food For Free. And the latter potential outcome became a reality when the food was transferred before its shelf-life expired.

Sodexo already was working with FRN on food donations as part of its corporate food waste reduction efforts. But about two weeks ago, Sodexo began to receive a high volume of cancellations from accounts. With widespread school closures and companies closing their doors and mandating their employees work from home, institutions’ respective need for food orders has dwindled even as the need to donate food to those who could use it rose.

"The thing is about Sodexo ... is that they already did a really good job updating all of their accounts around what food recovery could be for them and really empowered their dining managers and their chefs to do food recovery," said Regina Anderson, executive director of FRN. "And so that already kind of set them apart."

The thing is about Sodexo ... is that they already did a really good job updating all of their accounts around what food recovery could be for them.

It’s hard to quantify the amount of food that has been diverted from the landfill through recovery efforts over the past few weeks because not all Sodexo sites weigh their food. But for a glimmer of context, last week the cafeteria at Groupon’s corporate headquarters, which works with FRN and has closed its office due to COVID-19, recovered 360 pounds of food in a one-week period. That compares to 2,000 pounds recovered between March 2019 and two weeks ago, according to Anderson.

That’s just one company. So imagine that number multiplied by the numerous companies that have cafeterias for their employees but have been closed over the past few weeks.

In light of the global pandemic, Sodexo said it has not changed how it is taking action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which includes reducing food waste.

"We do not see these fundamentals changing in light of COVID-19," wrote Ted Monk, vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Sodexo North America, by email, before offering an idea for what this moment might bring: 

I believe the focus on responsible sourcing will intensify as consumers want to know more about where their food has come from and the safeguards which are built into the supply chain regarding human health.

But in the unprecedented present, the company is doubling down on its food recovery efforts, making the connections necessary to make sure no food goes to waste. In a later phone conversation, Monk said Sodexo uses United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which is to halve waste and reduce food loss by 2030, as a guidepost.

One way Sodexo does its part in achieving that goal is by partnering with organizations such as Feeding America and FRN, of which Monk is a board member, to ensure food goes toward feeding people instead of in the trash or a landfill.

Sodexo’s philanthropic arm, the Stop Hunger Foundation, works closely with its nonprofit partners such as FRN and has been mobilizing the company’s accounts to make sure that food gets recovered and donated to local nonprofits that are nearby.

"Our communication from the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation to our operations all across the country has been first and foremost if you do have food, how can we reallocate that food to other Sodexo accounts that need food?" said Roxanne Moore, the foundation’s executive director.

Moore also noted that when clients do have surplus food, they’re instructed to contact a partner organization to make sure the food is moved safely to its next location. FRN has been the first point of contact in that effort.

And I hope that after COVID that where other companies were inspired to donate their surplus food, that they continue to do that work.

In Sodexo’s partnership with FRN, the network acts as a kind of connective tissue between the company’s accounts and places such as food banks, churches and community centers where people can get food.

While Sodexo, FRN and other organizations have been doing this work for years, Anderson noted that COVID-19 offers her organization an opportunity to connect with Sodexo accounts that may not have had a food recovery plan in place and to potentially work with other companies that hadn’t already been on the food recovery wagon. 

"And I hope that after COVID that where other companies were inspired to donate their surplus food, that they continue to do that work," Anderson said.

Monk shared a similar sentiment for the future we might create after the COVID-19 pandemic is surmounted.

"If there's a silver lining to this, perhaps it's that organizations and companies and universities and schools are making connections in the local communities that they may not have had to have made before," Monk said. "And that can only be advantageous when it comes to developing food recovery in the future."

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