Although an important economic and environmental issue for all sectors, food waste is an element of healthcare waste that often goes unnoticed. Maine hospitals could do more to reduce their contribution to the food waste stream, according to a University of Maine study.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, hospitals produce 71% of all healthcare-related solid waste, and up to 15% of that waste is food. A 2012 study from the VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands showed that 39% of food served to patients in hospitals returned to the kitchen for disposal. This can be a staggering amount of waste. A study 2017 conducted by Wichita State University in Kansas showed that a hospital that serves 6,640 meals per week to patients can generate more than 24 tons of food waste per year.

The research team, led by Deborah Saber, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Nursing, used the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy Framework – developed in 2021 to prioritize reducing waste and promoting a circular food economy through methods such as animal feeding, industrial uses and composting before food goes to a landfill or incinerator – to see how hospitals of Maine process food waste. They conducted semi-structured interviews with hospital nutrition departments at seven facilities across the state about their food management procedures with the framework’s strategies in mind.

The surveys revealed several potential areas for improving food preparation systems in Maine hospitals to better manage food waste. For one thing, food is largely disposed of via sinks, making it difficult to quantify how much food is actually wasted in facilities. Yet researchers found that six of seven hospitals surveyed did not compost food waste due to barriers such as cost, procedural considerations and the challenge of hiring the right staff. Hospitals also rejected “ugly” vegetables, when they could accept imperfect products for use in meals like soups and sauces that would reduce waste and create savings for hospitals.

Food donations were recognized by surveyed hospital nutrition departments as a viable way to reduce waste, but were not widely practiced due to legal issues despite the protections offered by laws such as the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects non-profit organizations from liability for donations, except in cases of gross negligence. The researchers noted that a carefully crafted contract between hospital management and a food bank organization could help overcome these concerns.

Study findings underscore the need for nurse leaders to lead sustainable initiatives and educate hospital decision makers on best practices in food waste management to positively impact the environment and reduce hospital expenses.

“The findings are important because they identify distinct barriers to food donation, which could help the community while reducing waste,” says Saber. “Programs to reduce all waste, including food waste, have become a priority for healthcare organizations. We hope that the results of this study will provide information to increase efforts towards environmental sustainability.

Additionally, the researchers noted that culinary education programs in hospitals could be used to effectively promote food reuse strategies in the locations studied. Culinary school programs require completion of operations and management courses that include meal planning and budgeting strategies that would be applicable in a hospital setting.

The study was published in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing.

Contact: Sam Schipani, [email protected]