Iowa medical center finds solutions for 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 tobacco-like 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%.

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