In Pat Howard's kitchen at ProMedica Toledo Hospital in Ohio, leftover pans of macaroni and cheese don't languish for long, thanks to a food reclamation program.
After meals, food-service employees package and refrigerate any perishable food that hasn't been purchased, be it six gallons of soup or a few pounds of oatmeal. A truck from the local food bank picks up the leftovers each night, for quick distribution to local shelters and soup kitchens.
"They're excited to get even small quantities of food," says Howard, the hospital's nutrition services director. "And we're very happy not to be throwing it away."
Howard didn't dream up the food bank idea, he borrowed it from his co-workers. In January, Stephanie Cihon, ProMedica's corporate director of grants, community relations and advocacy, persuaded nearby Hollywood Casino to send leftover food to Seagate, the local food bank.
ProMedica even hired two part-time employees to repackage the food at the casino. In the first nine months, they reclaimed enough for about 33,000 meals.
It was part of a larger plan at ProMedica to take on hunger and nutrition as its big advocacy issue. In Lucas County, where ProMedica is based, nearly one in five people live below the poverty level, according to the 2011 U.S. Census — about 25 percent higher than the national average.
Around 2008, the numbers of overweight people the hospital system saw "were going down, but only because they were moving into the obese category," recalls Barbara Petee, ProMedica's chief advocacy and government relations officer. "It affected so many different health outcomes and diseases, from heart attack and stroke to high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes."
Early anti-hunger efforts included establishing a green market in a neighborhood where residents were hard-pressed to find fresh produce and getting teens together to design breakfast and fitness programs for elementary school children.
"As the largest employer in the area, we feel it's our mission to be involved with the community," says Petee. "We're an economic engine for our community, and we're responsible for its health and well-being. To thrive, we need to have citizens who are whole, sound, healthy and lead productive lives."
In February, the hospital system will share what it's learned from its hunger initiatives, along with partnering organizations like Share Our Strength and Meals on Wheels, in a national hunger summit in Washington, D.C. Petee hopes representatives from health care organizations around the country will attend.
"This is such an issue," she says. "The economic downturn forced a lot of people to re-adjust their lifestyles and look for assistance for the first time. We feel it's our responsibility to be in the community and work with community partners to help find sustainable solutions."
In Ohio, already-strapped families recently took another hit when they lost an average of $39 in groceries a month because of cuts to the food stamp program.
Howard has seen plenty of hungry people in town who rely on charity because they can't make their paychecks stretch far enough. "I've actually had people from the community knock on my office door asking if I could give them a free meal because they don't have food," he says.
It puts things in perspective for him. "In the past, I'm embarrassed to say, we would tend to throw smaller quantities of food away," Howard says. "We have things like scrambled eggs or a half-pan of oatmeal — who would have use for that? Well, the food bank. They're excited to get any quantity of food made with quality ingredients."
The smaller amounts, he says, are perfect for such places as women's and children's shelters that feed smaller numbers of people a day.
"In my 30-year career," Howard says of the food reclamation program, "it is one of the best things we have done as an organization."