Reducing Hospital Food Waste

Solutions being put into practice include donations, animal feeding and technology.

The stats say it all: 4 to 10 percent of food purchased by a foodservice operation gets discarded before it ever reaches a guest. Fifty-two million tons of food wind up in landfills annually while another 10 million tons get discarded or left unharvested on farms, according to research gathered by ReFED, a group of more than 30 businesses, nonprofits and government leaders with a shared goal of reducing food waste by 20 percent within a decade.

Hospitals, in particular, produce an astonishing 11.7 thousand tons of waste a day, costing organizations millions of dollars each year in disposal fees. What many people don’t know is that up to 15 percent of a hospital’s total waste comes from food, according to a report from Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering sustainable initiatives in the healthcare segment. That means hospitals generate more than 29 pounds of waste per staffed bed per day.

That waste gets trucked, railed, burned and buried, impacting our air, water and soil. Hospitals, on average, spend $0.06 to $0.10 per pound on waste removal. For an example of how that translates, let’s look at a Massachusetts hospital. Based on that state’s calculator, a typical 200-bed community hospital might generate 124.83 tons of food waste annually at a cost of $0.06 per pound for a total disposal cost of $14,977, according to Practice Greenhealth.

In light of the EPA and USDA’s goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, Practice Greenhealth has continued to work with hospitals across the nation to provide clear guidance on how to reduce waste. The organization’s work also lines up with ReFED’s time-specific goal mentioned earlier.

“We just want to make sure that foodservice as a department remains connected to the overall sustainability planning in hospitals,” says Janet Howard, director of member engagement for Practice Greenhealth, which strives to develop diverse green teams that include food and nutrition professionals, and then relay those achievements back to the staff, patients and the public. “By tackling food waste, we can touch on so many important priorities, like climate change, feeding hungry people in the community and also enriching the soil and feeding animals.”

Practice Greenhealth starts by helping members understand the waste reduction hierarchy set forth by the EPA: reduce, reuse, donate and process (compost or turn into animal feed).

Not all healthcare facilities can or choose to address these steps in order, but they can — and many do — address at least one. They then submit their data through the annual Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards, and those results are used for reports that allow healthcare organizations to benchmark goals against each other, says Howard.

The organization has also developed a step-by-step guide to help healthcare facilities accomplish these goals.

The first step — other than to learn more about waste reduction — is to develop a team that includes the foodservice department but also other groups like climate teams, the community benefit department and green teams or sustainability teams to engage other key stakeholders and raise awareness around food waste prevention.

Healthcare facilities should then assess and establish parameters of the food waste goal and understand the four identified food streams to monitor and address over time. Waste can be collected from overproduction, expired food, meal trays, salad bars and catering. Baselines can establish and measure goals, such as achieving a 10 percent food waste reduction, and eventually a 20 percent or even a 50 percent reduction. These help with additional steps to reduce waste through prevention, donation, animal feeding, industrial uses or digestion and composting, with sending waste to landfills as the last resort.

Here are three examples of approaches healthcare facilities can take to reduce waste using Practice Greenhealth’s guidelines.

Food Waste Reduction Through New Technologies

Montefiore Medical Center in New Rochelle, N.Y., installed a state-of-the-art digester system inside its kitchen to collect and convert food scraps into sewer-safe grey water, allowing the organization to divert almost more than 125 tons of food waste. This has led to 233,000 fewer pounds of carbon emissions and saved the facility $15,000 in waste hauling fees.

The digester breaks down food waste in 24 hours through a combination of mechanical processing and aerobic decomposition and produces a gray water byproduct that meets or exceeds municipal wastewater requirements. A 100 percent natural micronutrient additive accelerates the digestive process with no intrusive odors, no invasive pests and no damaging carbon footprint.

Kitchen staff collect only preconsumer waste in the form of kitchen scraps and extra hot meal trays, and then transports it to the digester about 40 to 50 feet away.

The digester then uses a combination of continuous mechanical processing of food waste and tightly controlled environmental conditions to maintain aerobic decomposition and hyper-acceleration of the decomposition process. A proprietary blend of all-natural organic nutrients fuels the naturally occurring bacteria present in the food waste to increase metabolic efficiency and accelerate the biochemical reactions involved in decomposition.

With savings of nearly $120 per ton of food waste, Montefiore realized a return on investment at 34 months. The digester also comes with a remote monitoring system to allow the facility to view the daily pounds diverted. Based on the success of its first unit, Montefiore added a second unit at its Wakefield Campus, located in the Bronx.

Food Waste Reduction Through Animal Feed

In rural areas close to farms, food waste provides an excellent source of nutrition and supplement for livestock feed, according to Practice Greenhealth.

HealthPartners, an integrated health care organization founded in 1957 diverted 88 tons of food waste two years ago to feed farm hogs, and composted almost 1.5 tons on site at one of the five hospitals. As a result, waste removal fees were reduced by $8,800.

Only preconsumer food waste can be segregated for either livestock feed or on-site composting. Cafeteria staff place the food waste in midsized, lined, covered and wheeled bins for storage and easy transport to the dock where they await pickup by the farmer. The farmer comes to the hospital several times a week to ensure the food waste does not take up space or create an unpleasant environment. Once at the farm, the food waste is steamed to remove any harmful bacteria in accordance with State Department of Agriculture requirements, and then fed to the hogs.

Managing Food Waste Through Donations

More than 48 million Americans are food insecure, according to the USDA. Reducing food loss by 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year.

Encouraging more healthcare facilities to donate food to organizations like Feeding America required some myth busting, however. “Many hospitals believe that food donation is dangerous, and our benchmark report found only 16 percent of our members had donation programs,” Howard says. “Some people don’t realize, however, that they are protected through Good Samaritan laws established years ago. By working with established organizations like Feeding America, they can put in place quality protocol.”

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed into law in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton to protect food donors against any liability. The bill was designed to encourage restaurants and retailers to donate fit food and grocery products to nonprofit charitable organizations for distribution to the needy and hungry.

Recognizing the beneficial impact of food donations, Practice Greenhealth partnered with Feeding America to create a nationwide program to donate excess food from hospitals and healthcare facilities to local food banks. Feeding America provides food and groceries to 46 million Americans, including 15 million children and seven million seniors.

When a hospital signs on with Feeding America, the organization connects the facility with a local food bank for a walk-through and discussion about protocol for safe, risk-free food donation. Even with the Good Samaritan laws, hospitals have a unique situation in that they can only donate food that hasn’t been touched by others, according to Howard. Typically, products nearing expiration, food that was prepared but never served, and extra box lunches still in their packaging are safe to donate.

Feeding America’s network of food banks and agencies has a national reporting platform and provides reports on amount and types of food donated. This kind of data can play an important role in future inventory controls and help with tax deductions.

The foodservice industry continues to move closer and closer to achieving its goals to cut down on the food waste we produce. Hospitals — especially those leveraging Practice Greenhealth’s resources — continue to make great strides in this march.

Practice Greenhealth’s Implementation Phase

Once the operator identifies a best waste reduction solution for its goals, Practice Greenhealth recommends following these steps for maximum success.

  • Step 1: Start small with a pilot phase and test the process. Walk through the process from start to finish and identify key team members, equipment needs (bins, educational posters) logistics, training, storage, quality assurance protocol (audits, checklists, policies, ongoing training) and education for new and existing staff.
  • Step 2: Segregate material. Facilities that can segregate food after tray return have the greatest success with reduced contamination. In operations with tray lines, for example, facilities may eliminate public receptacles, have food come back on trays and have trained staff segregate in the kitchen. If no tray return exists in the cafeteria, consider signage with visuals to support segregation, staff training and regular auditing for maximum benefit.
  • Step 3: Develop a long-term plan. Whichever options the facility identifies, develop a written guidance document and integrate it into the overall hazardous material and waste management plan, as required by Joint Commission and as desired by Practice Greenhealth.
  • Step 4: Plan for ongoing education and maintenance. Develop both new and existing staff training materials (Practice Greenhealth offers presentation scripts for this) for key individuals in environmental services and food and nutrition. Institute a routine that includes inspecting and monitoring segregation processes, and include on-the-spot training to ensure quality product. Contaminants may happen from time-to-time, but demonstration of ongoing training, a written protocol and clear communication with business partners can help maintain long-term successful relationships. Ask the hauler if they offer tours of the facilities and select key staff to attend. Make sure to speak to all key staff and make necessary adjustments. And, share best practices with the staff at all shifts.
  • Step 5: Don’t forget about marketing and communications efforts. Use the Practice Greenhealth posters and sample press releases to let staff, patients, visitors and the broader community know of the organization’s commitment to achieving the EPA and USDA goals to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030 with the Practice Greenhealth goal and toolkit. Check out Practice Greenhealth’s Sustainability Marketing Plan Toolkit for more templates on communication strategies. Continue to track food waste and weigh food that is diverted from landfill (whether for animal feed, compost or other strategy) to be able to report to Practice Greenhealth through the Environmental Excellence Awards, and use this information in communication efforts. 

How to determine percent change between baseline and current waste reduction

  1. Subtract pounds of food waste per meal served (current) from pounds of food waste per meal served (baseline).
  2. Divide the difference by the pounds of food waste per meal served (baseline).
  3. Multiply by 100. A positive number indicates a reduction in food waste per meal served. A negative number indicates an increase in food waste per meal served.
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