Everywhere I turned, I’d spot what appeared to be a buffet. They were pseudo-buffets. In Brazil’s small towns and big cities, at hostel breakfast bars and on Amazonian ferries, all had a slight twist which transformed the buffet’s brand. These pseudo-buffets no longer evoked a fluorescent lit Vegas buffet swarming with zombies astoundingly capable of piling their plates with towers of casserole and Jell-O.
The distinction is a shift towards more conscious eating. This shift comes in two forms: the popular pay-per-kilo model (the carrot) and the fee-for-waste model (the stick.) The former pivots an all-you-can-eat bonanza into an “oh yeah food has value and really I don’t need another muffin” restraint. With a food scale at the end of the buffet, there’s a custom price tag which acts as a motivator for conscious eating and rewards light eaters with a deal (those light in appetite or clever in selecting literally light food.) In a world where KFC and the golden arches are on every corner, buffets offer a glorious opportunity of options for local cuisine, significantly more nutritious than any other convenience food alternative.
The pay-per-kilo-buffet is a win for the frugal, the convenience-dependent and the light eaters. For the those with big appetites, there’s still a pseudo-buffet for you. Introducing, the fee-for-waste model. These appear to be all-you-can-eat buffets, save the discreet printed reminder, “A fee will be charged for any food that is taken, but not eaten.” Motivation for conscious-eating in this model says “pay us money for your waste” as opposed to pay-per-kilo’s “keep your money for not wasting.” Brazil squeezes similar benefits out of each, and strategically employs the different models as appropriate for different circumstances.
Compared to the common buffet, these models could be a strategy* to reduce food waste. Both models differ from a Sizzler or a Golden Corral in terms of “plate waste,” uneaten food that moves from customers’ plates directly into the trashcan. We’ve all been guilty of that moment when the stomach catches up to the eye’s hunger, and our second helping of lasagna goes uneaten. It goes into the trash because it offers nearly no reuse value. Plate waste can be composted or possibly served to animals, but unfortunately not many restaurants choose to take this extra step.
Contrast plate waste with the uneaten, unusable food left untouched in the buffet trays**. In Brazil, I was conscious of paying for each precious bite, making that second helping of moqueca look just a little less appetizing. Safe from germs, that portion of moqueca can be donated to a homeless shelter, enjoyed by the staff, or creatively repurposed into moqueca quiche for breakfast. And not only is plate waste less useful than non-plate-waste, it’s actively harmful. When not effectively composted, the portions and portions of second-thought unnecessary second-helpings go to rot in landfills. Without oxygen that rotting food creates methane gas, as landfills do, which is 28-36 times more harmful than carbon dioxide emissions.
Interestingly, Brazil is known to be one of the worst offenders in producing food waste. According to the Brazilian Company of Agriculture, they produce more than 40,000 tons every day. I tried to find out if the widespread pay-per-kilo or fee-for-waste buffet twists were a response to this problem, but I couldn’t find a link. Wherever this phenomenon came from, I’m pro Brazil’s pseudo-buffets. They’re reclaiming the buffet’s brand and reforming it’s reckless abandon of conscious eating.
*Disclaimer: buffets are far from the ideal blueprint to combat food waste, even the more conscious buffet. A topic for another post.
**By the way, those trays are still a contender for more food waste than a menu-based restaurant. Again, a topic for another post.