Iowa medical center devises strategy to reduce food waste
In 2012, roughly 12% of the food that the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics prepared for its staff, patients and visitors went into the garbage. And that waste was sent to a landfill.
Faced with that sobering statistic— and a scathing January 2013 article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper about food waste at the hospital—the health system’s leaders decided to make serious changes. “There was definitely movement afoot already to reduce food waste,” said Scott Turner, the hospital’s co-chief operating officer. “But that story may have served as catalyst and pushed us in that direction faster.”
The 679-bed academic medical center in Iowa City is one of many hospitals looking for innovative ways to reduce waste. Food waste makes up about 10% of hospitals’ overall waste stream, according to the American Hospital Association’s Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals.
Because food that rots in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, hospitals have even more of an obligation to implement food waste-reduction practices, said Janet Howard, director of member engagement for Practice Greenhealth, a Reston, Va.-based not-for-profit that promotes sustainability in healthcare.
“There’s a whole cycle for hospitals to look at, from the foods they buy to the way they prepare them to what they do with what’s left,” Howard said. “There are definite opportunities.”
At St. Cloud (Minn.) Hospital, for instance, food waste is ground and dehydrated into a fine, dry tobaccolike material that the hospital uses to enrich the soil in its flower beds, said Kathy Frenn, director of food and nutrition services.
Gundersen Health System, in La Crosse, Wis., reduced its food waste from 1,200 pounds a week in 2010 to less than 200 pounds by documenting and weighing all leftover food and arranging regular food donations to the local Salvation Army, said Thomas Sacksteder, the hospital’s chef.
U- I Hospitals and Clinics took a three-pronged approach, said Laurie Kroymann, the system’s senior associate director of food and nutrition services. “The first goal was reduce it, the second was donate it, and the third was compost it,” she said.
The process was challenging, she said, because waste-reduction efforts had to be coordinated across the hospital’s seven dining rooms. Hospital staff began by identifying low-selling items and using that data to reduce menu selections by 5%.
“There’s a fine line between having enough food choices and having items go to waste,” Turner said. “Going through this process, we did have times where we ran out of certain foods that people wanted. This is a landlocked campus with limited (dining) options within walking distance and we realized there has to be a balance.”
Hospital leaders noted with concern that some of the lowest-selling foods were also the healthiest, Kroymann said. “As a management team, we had to make sure there were still plenty of healthy choices available.”
The hospital also increased its donations to Table to Table, a local charity that collects and distributes food. In 2012, U-I Hospitals and Clinics donated 647 pounds of food. That number jumped to 2,300 in 2013 and the organization is projecting it will donate 4,500 pounds in 2015. The hospital has a manager who oversees donations, a designated refrigerator and freezer for donated food, and a set pickup schedule.
The third prong of the strategy is composting, Kroymann said. The hospital switched to compostable food containers and began using a pulper to pulverize its leftover food waste, which then goes to the city landfill each week for composting. “We sent 77 tons in 2013 and right now we’re on target to send 100 tons this year,” she said.
During the course of the program, per-serving food waste costs fell more than 20%, from 6 cents to 4.7 cents. Turner acknowledged that some expenses, such as replacing disposable containers with compostable ones, are unlikely to produce a financial return, at least in the near term. Still, it’s the right thing to do, he said.
“We believe that as the state’s academic medical center, this is our responsibility,” he said.