Food waste in the healthcare industry comprises about 10 to 15 percent of a hospital's waste stream, according to Practice Greenhealth.
A new study in the OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing analyzed food waste systems in rural northeastern United States hospitals, focusing on interviews with nutrition service experts at seven facilities.
"Environmental health is inextricably linked to societal and individual health," the study's authors noted in the conclusion. "As stewards of community health, hospitals have a responsibility to mitigate waste production and the effects of waste production and disposal on the public."
Researchers noted that waste reduction in healthcare is typically centered around the "failure of care delivery, lack of care coordination, overtreatment, pricing failures (e.g., overpricing of procedures such as computed tomography scans) and fraud and abuse."
While food donation is a viable strategy, it is not utilized largely because of legal implications. Researchers also pointed to culinary education which encourages repurposing, which could reduce both waste and hospital food costs.
The hospitals studied all engaged in different food preparation methods, with some making meals from scratch such as casseroles, while others purchased frozen vegetables and other items or fully-prepared meal items.
Fresh fruit and vegetables that were deemed "ugly" were returned to food vendors, while food close to spoiling was often used first. Hospital staff also repurposed or froze fruits such as strawberries and asparagus.
Imperfect fruit and vegetables (i.e., ugly) and unacceptable food was returned to contracted food service providers. Accepted food that was close to spoiling was reportedly used immediately. For example, overly ripe strawberries were used to make strawberry shortcake and excess asparagus were blanched and frozen. Participants routinely indicated that budgetary considerations motivated food waste mitigation practices. One participant attributed the focus on budgetary concerns, creatively repurposing food, and limiting waste to previous culinary curriculum and training.
Despite the inability to find quantifiable data, the study found the food in the healthcare industry is largely disposed of via in-sink processes along with MSW/Incineration and farm animal feed.
"Six hospitals that did not use composting discussed interest in composting or anaerobic digestion systems," the study indicated. "However, participants reported barriers to composting including cost, procedural considerations (e.g., movement of heavy bins filled with food waste) and hiring and training personnel to manage the food waste process."
Study authors concluded: "Reducing food waste must be recognized as a practical method of reducing GHG emissions from hospitals and an important step toward sustainability and environmental responsibility."