Food for thought: Hos­pi­tals must do more to end their waste­ful ways

Modern Healthcare - - COMMENT - By Janet Howard In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a Guest Ex­pert op-ed? modernhealth­ View guide­lines at Send drafts to As­sis­tant Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor David May dmay@modernhealth­ at

In the busy health­care en­vi­ron­ment, op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­ven­tions to im­prove op­er­a­tions and pro­cesses far out­num­ber the num­ber of hours in a day.

The 80/20 rule de­mands that projects with the great­est im­pact that re­quire the least ef­fort be im­ple­mented. Sus­tain­abil­ity ac­tiv­i­ties that feed into strate­gic goals of­fer the great­est op­por­tu­nity for suc­cess.

Let me serve one up for you—1 in 7 peo­ple liv­ing in the U.S. is food in­se­cure, mean­ing 1 in 7 peo­ple is hun­gry or at risk of be­ing hun­gry. Amer­i­can con­sumers, busi­nesses and farms spend $218 bil­lion per year grow­ing, pro­cess­ing, trans­port­ing and dis­pos­ing of food that is never eaten. Some 30% to 40% of all food grown in the U.S. is wasted.

Where do hos­pi­tals fit into this pic­ture? Hos­pi­tals gen­er­ate nearly 30 pounds of to­tal waste per bed per day, and many states es­ti­mate be­tween 10% and 15% of it is food waste (that’s roughly 3 pounds per bed per day). Ex­pired foods, over­pro­duc­tion, re­turned patient trays and poor prepa­ra­tion prac­tices can all lead to ex­ces­sive waste. That means op­por­tu­ni­ties for im­prove­ment and sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings.

But that’s only part of it. Wasted food is trucked to land­fills for dis­posal. When food breaks down in land­fills, it pro­duces meth­ane, a green­house gas that is 25 times the in­ten­sity of car­bon diox­ide over a 100-year pe­riod. The com­bi­na­tion of these is­sues—green­house gases, wasted dol­lars, hun­gry peo­ple—and the sheer size of the health­care in­dus­try and the in­flu­ence of its lead­er­ship in com­mu­ni­ties il­lu­mi­nate the is­sue.

And if the fi­nan­cial anal­y­sis is a stick­ing point, in­dus­try ex­perts have re­ported that when food ser­vice lead­ers fo­cus on food waste source re­duc- tion, they see a re­duc­tion in their food pur­chas­ing bud­get by 2% to 6%. Any hos­pi­tal can ben­e­fit from food waste source re­duc­tion, and this top rec­om­men­da­tion in the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Food Re­cov­ery Hier­ar­chy plan of­fers the big­gest op­por­tu­nity for en­vi­ron­men­tal and fi­nan­cial im­pact.

There are many agreed-upon rea­sons why any sus­tain­abil­ity plan is in­com­plete with­out a food waste re­duc­tion plan. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to the Prac­tice Green­health Sus­tain­abil­ity Bench­mark Re­port, only 16% of award-win­ning fa­cil­i­ties have es­tab­lished food do­na­tion pro­grams—and the top 25 hos­pi­tals in the na­tion are at 28%. Hos­pi­tals have shared their per­cep­tion that food do­na­tion is a risk, which is why Prac­tice Green­health part­nered with Feed­ing Amer­ica to en­sure a safe pro­to­col for food do­na­tion to feed peo­ple through lo­cal and re­gional food banks. With the use of our “Less Food to Land­fill” pro­gram and tool­kit, the health­care com­mu­nity can work to­gether to meet the shared goal of the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the EPA to slash the na­tion’s food waste in half by 2030.

Group-de­vel­oped and pub­licly avail­able goals help firm up a health­care fa­cil­ity’s com­mit­ment to the process and the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s abil­ity to with­stand staffing changes and the con­stantly shift­ing health­care land­scape. Sus­tain­abil­ity plan­ning and goal-set­ting cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment for con­ver­sa­tion, in­ter­de­part­men­tal team­work and test­ing new ideas. It can even cre­ate op­por­tu­nity for ini­tia­tives that were never re­al­ized or re­boot­ing pro­grams that haven’t reached their full po­ten­tial.

Through a co­or­di­nated stake­holder en­gage­ment plan, or­ga­ni­za­tions find their voice, and with the use of data, com­bined with sto­ry­telling, tie it all to­gether. As pro­grams ma­ture, cham­pi­ons are de­vel­oped on staff who are able to ar­tic­u­late the work and how com­mu­nity in­vest­ment, health­ier en­vi­ron­ments, and im­proved qual­ity, patient ex­pe­ri­ence and staff en­gage­ment are all in­ter­wo­ven and con­nected to core val­ues.

Not sure where to start? Be­gin by ob­serv­ing your own food waste be­hav­ior. Next time while pre­par­ing din­ner, vis­it­ing a restau­rant or in your hos­pi­tal’s cafe­te­ria line, ob­serve food choices and be­hav­iors. Wit­ness the left­overs and the prepa­ra­tion waste. Wit­ness the op­por­tu­nity as a man­ager and imag­ine what changes you could make in your work­place. In­stead of send­ing food to land­fills, rec­og­nize the op­por­tu­nity to cut costs, feed peo­ple in your com­mu­nity and help heal the en­vi­ron­ment.

Janet Howard is di­rec­tor of the Health­ier Hos­pi­tals pro­gram at Prac­tice Green­health.

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