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

By Janet Howard  | July 9, 2016

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 reduction, 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.

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