Beefsteak bowl Credit: Laura Hayes

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An estimated 650 million meals are wasted at restaurants across the country each year. When Erin McGeoy, the founder of Last Call For Food, first learned the scope of the restaurant industry’s food waste problem, she said the number was startling.

She knew that kitchens strive to limit excess product and owners often send meals home with employees while some even compost the scraps, but she said the problem made her angry, especially as a former student athlete who often couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day.

“I just couldn’t believe that there was this huge inefficiency because it’s not a problem of having enough food to feed everyone. It’s not a problem of scarcity of meals. It’s just a problem of logistics and figuring it out,” McGeoy said.

McGeoy created a solution called Last Call For Food in February, while still attending George Washington University. It allows restaurants to sell leftover meals to college students who struggle to find affordable food. Many of the meals cost around $5 each and since its launch, Last Call For Food has sold nearly 300 meals and garnered four partners in Foggy Bottom, with more on the way.

Beefsteak, ThinkFoodGroup’s fast-casual vegetable-driven restaurant from José Andrés, has offered nearly every menu item through the program since late April. Managers at Beefsteak regularly post menu items they expect to have a surplus of throughout the day, but other restaurants list meals at the end of a shift to be picked up the next day.

Bennett Haynes, the restaurant group’s chief of produce, says he tries to avoid food waste first by bringing in high quality product that is likely to last longer. While produce has a relatively short shelf life, Haynes says they cook with “sturdier” vegetables like potatoes, red onions, and carrots that can be stored in the pantry for days at a time.

There are some items that need to be sold each day such as the components of the restaurant’s signature warm grain bowls made with quinoa, rice, and freshly made sauces. “We didn’t necessarily have a solution for that,” Haynes says. “It didn’t mean that we had a lot of surplus by any means, but there were a few extra portions, so that’s where Last Call was just perfect.” 

Haynes also manages produce for ThinkFoodGroup’s other restaurants like Oyamel and Jaleo, so he knows how having more complex menus and kitchens full of a wider array of ingredients can lead to food waste without careful planning. “Full service can be more volatile,” Haynes says, which is why he is currently working to bring on more ThinkFoodGroup restaurants into the program. 

Farmers Restaurant Group founder Dan Simons says the Foggy Bottom location of Founding Farmers was Last Call For Food’s second partner when they signed on in March. The partnership was an easy sell because the restaurant already focuses on sustainability by composting the majority of its food waste, according to Simons. But composting is expensive and not feasible for most ventures because it requires the restaurant to adapt its operations to sort food waste.

Last Call For Food helps restaurants divert waste from landfills, but restaurant owners and managers say the service provides more than just environmental benefits. A few meals sold at $5 each may not make much of a dent in a high-volume restaurant like Founding Farmers, but Simons noted that for smaller restaurants the income can add up, especially at a time when restaurant margins are “tougher than ever.”

Even at a time when restaurants are struggling to turn a profit, both Simons and Haynes say helping the community that surrounds their restaurants motivated them to get involved.

Nearly 40 percent of students at George Washington University said they face food insecurity,the GW Hatchet reported last year, and McGeoy launched Last Call For Food in hopes of alleviating both her own struggle with hunger throughout college and the larger issue she saw on campus.

“When people can wrap a business model around a mission to make the world a better place, those are the things that stick,” Simons says.

Once the kitchen is closed up for the night at Founding Farmers, employees package up meals like fried chicken and mac and cheese to be sold through Last Call For Food the next morning. 

If they return the next day for the lunch shift, they may hand the meal over to a customer who couldn’t otherwise afford to eat at the spot, and Simons says that transaction has been one of the most valuable parts of the program.

“This feels really tangible, so it’s a morale boost for my team,” Simons continues. “When you do something that helps prevent climate change, it is a tiny drop in the ocean. But this is something that gives the staff a good feeling that we’re not just here working, we’re helping people.”