University of Iowa Hospitals makes changes to reduce food waste

Gazette investigation showed hospital threw away food worth $181,000 last year

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics said this week it will change procedures to reduce food waste, following a Gazette investigation about the hospital throwing away $181,000 worth of prepared food last year.

The hospital, which serves about 10,000 meals a day, will eliminate Styrofoam and nonrecyclable plastic from its cafeterias, allowing the hospital to compost food waste, CEO Ken Kates told the Iowa Board of Regents.

“We will cook smaller batches of food based on our customer demand in order to reduce wastage,” Kates added.

Changes will be made by the end of March.

Hospital officials also plan to increase the amount of food they donate to Table to Table, an Iowa City nonprofit that delivers salvageable food from restaurants, grocery stores and institutions to agencies that feed hungry people, said Regent Bob Downer, of Iowa City.

“The hospital has proceeded very proactively in terms of the concerns raised in your article,” Downer said.

A Jan. 20 Gazette investigation showed UI Hospitals threw away 355,000 servings of food valued at $181,600 in the year that ended Nov. 30. This was food prepared, but not sold, in seven dining areas in the state’s largest hospital.

The UI Hospital’s 12 percent pre-consumer food waste is above the 4 percent to 10 percent average waste seen at institutions that work with LeanPath, a Oregon-based company that provides automated food waste tracking for schools, hospitals, restaurants and corporations in more than 30 states.

UI Hospitals previously donated only packaged food because they didn’t want to violate state health codes. But donating prepared food is legal as long as hot food is kept above 135 degrees and cold food is kept below 41 degrees, Johnson County Public Health Department officials said.

A 1996 federal law protects food donors from civil and criminal liability except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

The UI reported sending between 220 to 330 gallons of waste to the Iowa City Landfill each day. By removing Styrofoam and plastics from the food, more can be composted.

Food waste makes up about 14 percent of Iowa’s landfills, according to a 2011 waste characterization study. As food breaks down, it generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A growing number of waste haulers are adding food scraps to their rounds because of the potential revenue from compost.

UI Hospitals is making other changes to increase recycling by 10 percent and reduce waste by 10 percent, Kates said. Officials bought 4,100 desk-side recycling containers for employees and have switched to microfiber mops, which require less detergent.The hospital is also studying ways to reduce energy use in the heating and electric systems.