IOWA CITY — University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics threw away 355,000 servings of food worth $181,600 in the year that ended Nov. 30 — a waste of 12 percent of food prepared for employees and visitors at the state’s largest hospital.
Among unsold food tossed in a single November day were 160 servings of meatloaf, 174 servings of ham and au gratin potatoes and 140 sides of mashed potatoes.
On another day, 85 servings of macaroni and cheese went in the trash.
On a third day, staff prepared 77 servings of spicy French fries. None was eaten.
“It made me angry and kind of sick to my stomach,” said Dan Lesieur, a former UI student who worked for two years at the UI Hospitals cafeterias. “There are huge amounts of food that could still be served and that could still be used for a profit or just for people to eat.”
Forty percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, according to the National Institutes of Health. More than 34 million tons of food waste was generated in 2010, with most of that going to landfills where it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
UI Hospitals does not regularly donate unsold food, nor does the hospital recycle food waste into compost, which is striking at a campus with a Sustainability Office that promotes the UI goal of 60 percent waste diversion by 2020.
By the numbers
The UI Hospitals Food and Nutrition Services prepared more than 3 million servings of food in seven dining areas from Dec. 1, 2011, through Nov. 30, 2012, according to data obtained by The Gazette through an Open Records request. This does not include food for patients, which is ordered a la carte.
About 2.65 million servings of food were sold, leaving 355,256 for the trash.
The $181,630 in wasted food over the last year is less than 1 percent of the program’s $20.7 million fiscal 2012 budget.
“Bottom line, all of that falls into what it costs us to produce and serve a meal,” Food and Nutrition Director Joan Dolezal said.
The 6OR Dining Room, which serves doctors and nurses who work in the operating rooms, tossed 32 percent of its food over the last year. The Compass Cafe, which provides healthy fare, had the second-highest waste rate of 16 percent. The Atrium Dining Room, which has waiters and a to-order menu, only threw away 1 percent of its prepared food.
The average pre-consumer food waste is 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 in more than 30 states.
“They are at the higher end,” LeanPath President Andrew Shakman said of UI Hospitals. “I would definitely say there is room for improvement with focused effort.”
Dan Nickey, senior program manager with the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, was surprised by the UI Hospitals’ food waste.
“It’s a little disturbing that they accept that as the cost of doing business,” he said.
Preventing food waste through better forecasting is the top priority, Shakman said.
Food service managers tend to overproduce because they don’t want to run out and want to make sure food looks tasty throughout the service period. But this can go overboard, with staff padding margins by two to three times, he said.
The UI Hospitals track daily sales of each food type and use those numbers to decide how much food to prepare during the next two-week cycle, said Laurie Kroymann, food and nutrition services senior associate director.
The staff does not review monthly or annual numbers to determine larger sales trends.
On some days, the UI Hospitals’ forecasting was dead on. Thanksgiving Day, for example, staff sold all 820 servings of sliced turkey, all 580 servings of steamed corn and every one of the 828 pumpkin Bundt cakes baked for the holiday.
But the hospital failed to predict that the next day — Black Friday — people wouldn’t be in the mood for foods like ham, potatoes and meatloaf. The hospital served less than one-quarter of the 458 “comfort food” entrees prepared in the Fountain Dining Room.
Beyond preventing waste, the next-best option is donating food for human consumption, Shakman said.
The UI Hospitals has a contract with Table to Table, an Iowa City food “rescue” organization, and donated 647 pounds of food in the last year. But the hospital never donates prepared food, which is where most waste occurs.
“Food safety is huge, and there are a lot of regulations we need to follow,” Dolezal said.
Dolezal and Kroymann think donating prepared food violates state health laws and fear a recipient could get food poisoning if the food isn’t handled correctly.
But donating prepared food is legal as long as hot food is kept above 135 degrees and cold food is kept below 41 degrees, said Doug Beardsley, director of the Johnson County Public Health Department.
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, Beardsley said. Prepared food out of the temperature “safe zone” must be eaten or tossed within four hours.
Table to Table, founded in 1996, collected about a million pounds of food last year from businesses that include Hy-Vee, Aldi, Costco, KFC, Olive Garden and Panera. University (of Iowa) Catering also is a regular donor, providing food that is prepared, but not served, at events across campus.
Refrigerated vans allow Table to Table to keep food cool between donors and recipients, which include organizations like the Crisis Center, Free Lunch Program and the Hope Lodge.
Concern about liability over donated food is the top reason organizations don’t participate in food rescues, Shakman said.
None of the 15 hospitals in the Iowa Health System, including St. Luke’s Hospital, donates leftover food, said Cheryl Lounsberry, integrated service director for the hospital chain. Academic medical centers at the University of Illinois and University of Missouri also don’t donate unsold food.
However, a 1996 federal law protects food donors from civil and criminal liability except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
“The liability risk is more perception than a reality,” Shakman said. “We’re trying to bring everybody up to speed on that fact.”
Cost of waste
Institutions across the country are finding ways to reduce and recycle food waste to save money and help the environment.
St. Luke’s slashed its food waste from nearly 13,000 pounds a month to 5,700 pounds through the ValuWaste program offered by LeanPath. The program saved the hospital $17,000 last quarter, said Lori Anderson, St. Luke’s Dining Services manager.
“The cost of food kept going up and up,” she said. “You have to look at different options to save money.”
ValuWaste requires employees to weigh wasted food — everything from watermelon rinds to expired meat — and record a reason for the waste. Employees look at the data to determine what changes are needed to reduce the waste.
St. Luke’s staff decided to prepare vegetables in half pans so they could cook the food only as needed. They also changed staff break times to decrease overproduction before employees took breaks.
The St. Cloud Hospital in Minnesota installed a food pulping and dehydration system that turns leftover food into dry compost used on the hospital grounds.
The UI Hospitals uses a pulping machine to reduce food waste from 10 55-gallon garbage cans down to one, Dolezal said. But because Styrofoam also is pulped with food and paper, the hospital can’t compost much of the material. Instead, they send 220 to 330 gallons of waste to the landfill each day.
Food makes up about 15 percent of Iowa landfill waste, according a 2011 state waste characterization study. The Iowa City Landfill has composted more than 300 tons of food since 2007 and wants to expand its program.
The Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency also recycles food waste into compost, charging companies lower dumping fees for compostable material than for trash.
Changing the culture
Lesieur was a UI music student when he started working at the UI Hospitals in 2009. He soon noticed large amounts of food, including hundreds of taco salads or 15 pounds of expired pork, in the garbage.
“Those are animals that die, just to be thrown away,” said Lesieur, who now is a musician in New York.
Employees who eat leftover hospital food — even food headed for the trash — often find themselves out of work for stealing, he said.
“Housekeeping employees can’t take rolls of toilet paper,” Kroymann said, defending the rule on eating unsold food.
When Lesieur asked his supervisors about the waste, they said it wasn’t a problem or that there was nothing that could be done about it.
They believe the UI Hospitals runs an efficient food service operation that serves about 10,000 meals a day between patient and retail operations. They provide 530 unique menu options among seven dining areas in the 14-acre hospital.
The UI Hospitals ranks 15th among 47 similar academic medical centers when you compare the retail food service operational costs divided by the number of meals served. Hospital CEO Ken Kates had not seen the food waste statistics until they were compiled for The Gazette, but has since started contacting other hospitals to compare numbers.
“Every nickel we could save in that area, we’re committed to doing,” Kates said.
Wasted food presents an opportunity to meet the UI’s goal of diverting 60 percent of its waste by 2020, said Liz Christiansen, director of the UI’s Office of Sustainability.
“Reducing food waste is a really appropriate way to reduce waste because if it’s properly cared for it could feed other parties,” she said.
Want to compost food waste, but don’t know what to do with it?
• Compost is great for your garden. Collect kitchen scraps (no meat or dairy) in a covered container under your sink. When the container is full, take it outside to a larger compost bin or tumbler. Stir the mix to speed the process.
• Cedar Rapids residents can put food waste in their green Yardy carts along with yard waste. This is composted at the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency.
• Curbside pickup of food waste isn’t provided in most other Eastern Iowa communities, but a growing number of waste haulers are adding food waste to their rounds. Johnson County Refuse picks up food waste from Iowa City customers and Green RU, a Des Moines-based recycler, is looking for Eastern Iowa businesses and institutions that want to compost food waste.