Check Up for Food Waste
When a known and respected institution, such as a hospital, leads the way in environmental health and sustainability, it takes the motto of “do no harm” to a whole new level that reaches beyond patients, employees, and visitors, and into the community at large.
Hospitals can have a huge influence on their communities’ well-being through greening initiatives and can set the stage around how policy can impact human and environmental health. Although municipalities and universities have traditionally played a larger role in sustainability and zero waste, the time has come for health systems to step up and use their knowledge in food and nutrition, human and public health, waste resource management and their large volume purchasing power, to lead the way. The larger the network of influencers and stakeholders, the bigger impact on local and national policy and infrastructure. So, what are we waiting for?
Currently, a popular conversation happening in healthcare is around food and food waste, largely due to the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, and Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) campaigns. Did you know that Americans throw away an estimated 40 percent of the total U.S. food supply? Hospitals are a major contributor to this waste stream, with food waste making up 10 to 15 percent of the 6,600 tons of waste they dispose each day. In a hospital, we leave an average of 1/3 to 1/2 pound of food on our plates. The impact on our systems is enormous.
Healthcare leadership can implement local and sustainable food purchasing policies, adopt healthy beverage policies, promote less wasteful and less harmful packaging, plan to donate or compost leftover food, and measure the long-term impact on public health and the environment. I have seen systems support local and regional initiatives such as the 20% local food by 2020 campaign to support local farmers and economies, reducing environmental harm while simultaneously providing healthier meals to a diverse population that may not otherwise have access to fresh foods and farmers markets.
Food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed, and consumed. From one perspective, food that is not consumed is waste, but when you think of food as part of a food system, that waste is instead a resource and that resource has value, somewhere to someone or something. The value may be as a soil conditioner or compost to grow more healthy food, a source of energy for a digester, an animal feed ingredient, an item for donation to a food bank or homeless shelter. And have I mentioned the community benefits in keeping with the hospital’s mission? Or think of the cost and environmental value that food waste reduction and diversion from the landfill has on our ever-increasing pressures on supply chain budgets and carbon foodprint, oh, I mean footprint.
For hospitals with a mission-driven commitment to sustainability, tackling food waste at all levels — from purchasing to food recovery — brings multiple organizational goals into alignment. The intersection between food, nutrition and health is proven, so why not include food ‘waste’ and food packaging into the equation to bring it full circle?
In my field of resource management and environmental engineering, and my role in local food policy and working with non-profit organizations and hospitals, I have found that the connection between good food, healthy soils and compost, and human and environmental health to be quite a compelling reason to continue in my personal and professional quest for zero waste. Hospitals can be leaders on their own or, better yet, partner with their community around local and sustainable goals, zero waste policies and advocating for composting infrastructure, to achieve long-term benefits and care for human and environmental health.
Are you performing a check up on your food waste management practices? Let us know in the comments section below!