A Simple Way to Save a Lot of Waste

901 Save the Food Challenge helps restaurants reduce waste, one neighborhood at a time 

Photography by Emma Meskovic

Can the way a restaurant serves jelly really make a difference in a community’s food waste problem? According to Brother Juniper’s restaurant—and the 901 Save the Food Challenge—it can.

The 901 Save the Food Challenge is an initiative of Project Green Fork.

“We know that we’re wasting up to 40 percent of our food in the U.S. every year, with most of that ending up in landfills,” says Leann Edwards, program director for Project Green Fork.

“It’s an environmental, economic, and social issue.” That’s particularly evident in Shelby County, she says, where many residents experience food insecurity. The 901 Save the Food Challenge exists to help restaurants be part of the solution to food waste and food insecurity.

The initiative takes a neighborhood approach, recruiting several restaurants from the same part of town to participate in the 30-day challenge. Brother Juniper’s participated with other restaurants from the University of Memphis and Highland strip areas. Like all the restaurants in the challenge, Brother Juniper’s began by saving all of their waste—food and otherwise—from one business day. Project Green Fork sorted through the waste and offered recommendations for changes to make.

“We’ve always thrown away more food than we like to,” says Sarah Elliott, Brother Juniper’s owner.

“Project Green Fork really helped us with the donation app Careit. You can post food donations so local nonprofits can pick up leftover food and repurpose it.”

As Project Green Fork sorted through Brother Juniper’s waste, they noticed many individual packages of jelly and butter. Brother Juniper’s had been placing those condiments on diners’ plates, so if the customer didn’t use them, they had to be thrown away. Project Green Fork recommended a simple fix: Instead of placing packages on plates, the restaurant could offer them in serving bowls on the tables. Diners could use as many as they wanted, but what they didn’t want wouldn’t be thrown away.

“It’s just a simple way to save a lot of waste,” says Sarah. “It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

Photo of Brad McCarley by Chip Chockley

Buster’s Butcher is near Brother Juniper’s and was part of the same 30-day challenge. Brad McCarley serves as head butcher at Buster’s Butcher. “I’ve always striven to be aware of our impact on the environment and the ecosystem,” he says.

“We try to recycle as much as we can. We try to use our food scraps; things like celery ends and onion ends go into stock. Everything gets repurposed here.”

For him, reducing food waste has both environmental and economic benefits. “The price of food has gotten so high that it’s necessary to use everything,” he says.

He says the 901 Save the Food Challenge is a challenge that everyone wins. “It’s a good systems check to make sure that you are doing the things you think you’re doing, or to be made aware of things you could be doing that you’ve never even thought of,” he says. “I would suggest it for any restaurant. It’s like a food ethics audit.”

Juan Viramontes, general manager of Global Cafe, was part of the first challenge, which included the Crosstown Concourse building, where Global Cafe is housed. Juan says the challenge’s neighborhood approach fits well with the concourse motto of “better together.” During and after the challenge, neighboring businesses have asked each other questions and shared ideas. “It helps have a sense of unity,” he says.

For Global Cafe, minimizing waste has been part of the mission from day one, says Juan. Take a bell pepper, for instance. The prettiest parts might be used in a fajita, but other parts are chopped up and used in pico de gallo, sautées, and broths. “With any type of vegetable—really, any type of anything that walks into our kitchen—the part that’s not edible is the only thing that ever goes into the trash,” he says. 

But even for a restaurant that’s already waste-conscious, Juan believes the challenge is well worth it.

“A good reminder about great practices is never going to come at a bad time,” he says.

“Both in regards to the challenge and just things in general in life, in the long run it’s good to be cautious in where you employ your resources and not to be wasteful. Yes, we have bountiful resources, but we don’t have endless resources. I hope we don’t see it in our lifetime, but I’m concerned we might get to the point that those bountiful resources aren’t as bountiful anymore because we waste them. If you don’t need to use it, please spare it.”

Photo of Project Green Fork Staff and Drew Barton by Stacey Greenberg

The 901 Save the Food Challenge will land in Cooper-Young next; it’s currently recruiting businesses to join the challenge. Project Green Fork likes to have between four and eight neighborhood businesses for each 30-day challenge.

Restaurants typically start by saving all of their waste—both front of house and back of house—for one day. Then Project Green Forks sifts through it all and analyzes the data.

“We tell them what their edible content was, what their inedible content (scraps that could have been composted) was, recyclables, paper waste,” says Leann. “It’s just a snapshot, but we can usually extrapolate recommendations from that.”

Then Project Green Fork and the restaurant work together to create a list of changes to make during the 30 days of the challenge. Recommendations often include source reduction (helping waste not happen in the first place by doing things like ordering the right quantity of food and creatively using surplus in new recipes), composting, and donating food to local food rescue organizations. Whatever the recommendations, Project Green Fork helps the restaurant know how to put them into action.

And Leann hopes waste-conscious Memphians will choose to support restaurants who have taken on the challenge. “The important thing is that people get out and support these restaurants doing this good work,” she says. “These are local, independently owned restaurants doing this work because it’s the right thing to do and they have a real love for it.”

Are you a restaurant owner interested in taking on the 901 Save the Food Challenge? Visit challenge.projectgreenfork.org and click the “Join Us” button.

Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves the whole storytelling process—from getting to know all the wonderful people she interviews, to weaving together a story, to being entrusted with editing other writers’ work. 

Emma Meskovic is a digital content manager, illustrator, and super fan of this publication who loves taking photos of her food. @emmamesk