The Impact Of The Literal Tons Of Food Waste At U.S. Hospitals

As a nation, 40 percent of the food we produce is wasted from farm to landfill. Now imagine how much food is wasted within the healthcare industry, where hospital food is notorious for being, well, hospital food.

According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. hospitals generate about 170,000 tons of food waste annually. Further, food waste is estimated to be responsible for 20 percent of all methane emissions, a greenhouse gas the EPA deems to be 20 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Though most hospitals have well established, fundamental sustainability activities like recycling programs, tackling food waste to lessen their environmental impact requires a new level of commitment and some creativity.

The Path to Reducing Food Waste in Hospitals

To help health care organizations who want to reduce their food waste footprint get started, VHA Inc., the largest network of not-for-profit hospitals in the U.S., suggests taking the following steps:

  1. Assess your Food Use and Waste: Examining the amount of food waste generated should be the first step in planning a sustainability program. For example, VHA member Gundersen Health System, headquartered in La Crosse, Wisconsin, embarked on a program in 2010 to reduce the amount of food in their waste stream. To track exactly how much and what food was being thrown away, they began using a tracking program called LeanPath® and their baseline results were shocking: about half a ton of food waste was generated each week. The software program also provided valuable information about the time of day, day of the week and the type of food most often thrown away.
  1. Pinpoint the Culprit(s): Once you’ve tracked down the amount of your hospital’s food waste, the next step is to figure out what’s causing it – a key step to inform your action plan. After VHA member Providence Health & Services, located in the western United States, set sights on a zero-waste initiative, nurses noted that many times meals were delivered while a patient was out of the room or having tests run, resulting in the patient returning to a cold meal that was subsequently thrown away. To reduce this waste, hospital staff worked with food services to create a meals-on-demand system, instead of delivering meals at set times. With this system Providence reduced food waste and related energy costs associated with preparing a meal that wouldn’t have been eaten while also increasing patient satisfaction.

Another reason for waste is the quality of the food served. It’s not groundbreaking news that unappealing food will inevitably get tossed aside. But better tasting hospital food does not necessarily mean fatter, richer cuisine.

On the contrary, hospitals that create food sustainability programs frequently improve food quality and promote healthy eating by taking out deep fat fryers and limiting sugary beverages, and instead focusing on fresh, high quality ingredients that are naturally delicious. Many hospitals are also adjusting recipes to take advantage of seasonal, local produce which reduces transit resources and provides economic support for the communities they serve – all while reducing waste.

  1. Create a plan of attack: Once the drivers of food waste have been pinpointed, hospital staff and food service can work together to design a plan that incorporates both waste reduction and recovery. Some hospitals donate useable food and ship the rest to a composting facility. Others work with a waste aggregator who combines the food scraps with that from other commercial businesses to upcycle it into dog treats or other animal foods. Some even use anaerobic digestion, a technology that converts food waste into an energy source, as a way to reduce landfill usage and create renewable energy.
  1. Adjust along the way: With any program it is important take advantage of small changes that can make an impact as well as be open to new scalable programs that fit your organization’s sustainability mission. An example of small changes that can impact waste levels are adjusting the amount of food that is warmed up at certain times of day or educating staff how to prepare vegetables so there is less scrap waste. For Gundersen Health System, small adjustments such as these have decreased food waste by approximately 850 pounds per week which is an 80 percent improvement from when they began. Overall, that equates to an average cost savings of over $30,000.

An example of a new program coming from Gundersen’s food waste reduction effort is a food donation program with the local the Salvation Army. Gundersen now sends leftover food, which is still safe to eat but can’t be served in the hospital due to food service regulations, to their soup kitchen which generates more than 500 meals a month for community members in need.

This Earth Day we are all reminded that together we share the responsibility to protect our environment. For hospitals that have already worked to reduce the energy and water they use and the waste they generate, focusing on food is a smart next step. Like other recycling and waste reduction programs these efforts benefit the environment, their communities and also reduce costs.

Terri Scannell is VHA’s director of corporate citizenship and sustainability and a founding member of the American Hospital Association Sustainability Roadmap taskforce. VHA Inc., an Irving, Texas-based national network of 5,200 not-for-profit health system members and affiliates is committed to environmentally sound practices that help patients, support health care workers and prevent negative impact on the community.

Posted in Expert Opinions.