Iowa med­i­cal cen­ter de­vises strat­egy to re­duce food waste

Modern Healthcare - - BEST PRACTICES - By Mau­reen McKin­ney

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.

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