How LA Food Fest is trying to become the world's first zero-waste tasting event

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Food festivals are  a great opportunity to shovel as many bite-sized portions of obscure delicacies into your mouth as you can. But the dirty little secret of these events — or maybe it's not such a secret — is the amount of waste they produce.

"Anytime you're seeing boxes and boxes of food go into the trash at the end of the night, it kind of breaks my heart," Shawna Dawson says. "It pains me to know how many people in our city go to bed hungry."

Dawson is the founder and organizer of LA Food Fest, which held its seventh tasting event this weekend. The two-day festival featured nearly 150 vendors dishing out everything from banh mi and empanadas to ceviche and lobster rolls for up to 20,000 hungry people.

This year, she set an ambitious goal for herself: Transform the festival into the world's first zero-waste food tasting event.

"I didn't think it would be as challenging as it's been," Dawson says. "It's been an education and an eye-opener for me, just the level of hoops that must be jumped through."

Businesses and organization can't give leftover food to people on the street, the way some of us might do with restaurant leftovers. There are strict regulations governing the safety of donated food, which makes sense.

"When you're dealing with anything on this scale, public health entities have to be as concerned for all citizens as they are for people at this event," Dawson says.

The biggest enemy is time.

Produce and unprepared food — things like beet or carrot tops that can be reused for stocks or other dishes — can go into a fridge and sit until it's transported. "But with prepared food, the minute that food is prepared, that clock is ticking," Dawson says. "From a food service perspective, there's a short shelf life and it's gotta go." And it has to be safely transported, at the correct temperature while properly secured.

Dawson says she sought out dozens of organizations before she found ones that were equipped to handle the logistical challenge: "So many of the groups that do this type of work don't have the resources. I can't tell you how many churches we spoke to."

In the end, she worked with LA Kitchen and HealthRight 360 as well as several faith-based organizations that organized volunteers to transport leftover and unused food to nonprofits, which often lack the personnel to do that.

It also required Dawson to work with the chefs and vendors of LA Food Fest, convincing them to get on board with the mission and educating them about what that would entail. At 11 p.m. on Saturday, when the event's first full day ended, a team arrived to collect the food and transport it to its next destination.

"This has been a concerted effort of at least a dozen groups, all of whom have done their part to help us connect," she says.

On the serving-ware end, Dawson brought in hands-free cardboard trays with thumb holes, recyclable Tossware plastic glasses made from post-consumer recycled materials, and kegs instead of bottles for wine, which makes a major difference when you're serving thousands of pours a day.

Dawson won't know until Monday how close to the zero-waste goal LA Food Fest got. But she says it's not about perfection. "My goal for this weekend was to hit a 50 percent mark. If we get 50 percent this time, it means we'll get 60 to 70 percent next year and pretty darn close on the third try. Even if we only make a tiny dent this year, it's a tiny dent that's never been made before and we can continue to improve."

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