University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics reduces food waste

Hospital eliminated surplus servings, less-popular items

David Cook, a kitchen helper in the Food & Nutrition Services department, on Tuesday sorts out trash from the compostabl
David Cook, a kitchen helper in the Food & Nutrition Services department, on Tuesday sorts out trash from the compostable food containers and food waste that will go into the pulper at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics reduced food waste by 40 percent in 2013 by eliminating less-popular menu items and cutting surplus servings.

The hospital donated more food to organizations that feed the hungry and composted 77 tons of food waste -- up from zero in 2012.

“I’m very proud of that and the partnerships we’ve been able to create,” said Joan Dolezal, director of UIHC Food and Nutrition Services.

The Gazette reported in January 2013 UI Hospitals wasted 355,000 servings of food, worth about $180,000, in the previous year in dining centers that feed visitors and employees. This waste amounted to about 12 percent of food prepared in December 2011 through November 2012.

Most of the wasted food went to the landfill, where it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Gov. Terry Branstad told The Gazette at the time that he hoped the state's largest hospital could do better.

The hospital made major changes in 2013, reducing pre-consumer food waste to 212,500 servings worth $137,350, which was 7 percent of prepared food.

This is well within the average pre-consumer food waste of 4 percent to 10 percent at institutions that work with LeanPath, an Oregon-based company that provides automated food waste tracking for schools, hospitals, restaurants and corporations.

Better Planning

Reducing food waste starts with better meal planning.

Dolezal and her team cut 52 menu items, or about 5 percent of the items served across seven dining areas. They forecast serving numbers based on how much of a particular item sold in its previous rotation, but they do not prepare as large a buffer as in previous years.

“We don’t want to run out of food, but we forecast as close as we can,” Dolezal said.

The hospital prepared 4.5 percent fewer servings of food in 2013, while selling slightly more food due to higher patient volumes. Patient food is sold a la carte, but more patients mean more visitors and staff eating in the dining centers.

Donations up

In 2013, UI Hospitals donated 2,341 pounds of food to Table to Table, an Iowa City group that picks up food and takes it to organizations such as the Crisis Center, Free Lunch Program and Salvation Army. This more than tripled the 647 pounds the hospital donated the previous year.

The hospital still doesn’t donate prepared food because of concerns it would violate health code requirements.

However, donating prepared food is legal as long as hot food is kept above 135 degrees and cold food is kept below 40 degrees, the Johnson County Public Health Department reported.

Unless food has been on buffet line, where patrons serve themselves, it is safe for up to seven days as long as it is cooled properly and reheated to 135 degrees. Prepared food out of the temperature “safe zone” must be eaten or tossed within four hours.

Table to Table has collected prepared food from the Iowa Memorial Union for years, said David Wellendorf, volunteer manager. But that food has to be frozen quickly or delivered quickly to an organization that can serve it within hours, he said.

“We can do that and will do that as long as logistics match up,” Wellendorf said.

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

Garbage to compost

UI Hospitals used to send more than 200 gallons of food to the dump each day. Styrofoam food containers made it impossible to compost the waste.

In 2013, the hospital traded Styrofoam for biodegradable containers that can be composted with food.

The hospital has hauled 77 tons of compostable food waste to the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center since March.

“Seventy-seven tons is awesome,” said Jennifer Jordan, landfill recycling coordinator.

The UI Hospitals’s food waste, along with food waste from Iowa City’s Hy-Vee stores, helped the landfill more than double their amount of compostable food from 170 tons in 2012 to 475 tons in 2013, Jordan said.

The landfill sells the compost for $20 a ton to area landscapers, builders and homeowners.

Costs of reducing waste

UI Hospitals already had pulping machines to process food scraps. But switching to organic containers costs about $102,000 more a year, Dolezal said.

The hospital also had to add compost pick-up to its contract with Waste Management Inc. for an additional cost of $38,000 a year.

The UI is considering buying a walk-in refrigerator for the hospital dock so that food waste could be stored for once-a-week pickup, which would reduce compost hauling costs by about $22,000 a year, Dolezal said.

Educating visitors and staff

UI Hospitals set up recycling centers in several dining areas so customers can sort their own leftovers. People who aren’t sure where to put items can leave them on their trays for sorting by hospital staff, Dolezal said.

Hospital employees gather the compostable food from dining centers each day sort it again to make sure plastics, milk cartons and other non-recyclables don’t get into the mix.

“It’s a good thing,” said employee David Cook, of Oxford, as he pushed a stream of pancakes, apple chunks and food containers into a Hobart food pulper.

The new measures also help the UI toward its goal of 60 percent waste diversion by 2020.“Staff know the focus is on sustainability,” said Scott Turner, interim co-chief operating officer for UI Hospitals. “They want to make sure their work is in line with that.” 

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