Food waste, as messy as it can be, is an area that's helping hospitals to cut costs and help the environment.

A number of health systems are taking steps to use more of the food they obtain for their food services and looking for ways to reuse the food waste that is produced. Some of the ways to reduce waste from meal service range from streamlining food purchasing to becoming more efficient with preparation. Ensuring that any food that can’t be repurposed stays out of a landfill is another tactic hospital leaders are taking.

“A lot of what hospitals can do in terms of food depends on your opportunities in the region, but one thing any hospital can do, regardless of size or location, is [to] prevent food waste altogether," says Janet Howard, director of member engagement and the Healthier Hospitals program at environmental advocacy group Practice Greenhealth. “That’s the biggest opportunity, both financially and environmentally.”

Providence Health & Services, based in Renton, Wash., literally looked into its garbage cans to see what was being wasted and implemented small but effective methods to reduce food waste, says Michael Geller, regional sustainability manager.

Reusing "ugly" parts of vegetables as stock for soups and turning excess bread into croutons ensures that leftover food is being used to its fullest. The nonprofit health system recently started turning the ends of tomatoes into marinara sauce, for example. They've also started moving away from large-batch cooking, where half a pan of food typically ends up in the trash, toward made-to-order meals that have significantly cut into Providence’s food waste output, and are popular with patients.

HealthPartners, which includes hospitals in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, has made eliminating food waste a main course of action. Leaders there have integrated green teams at each location and created a five-year plan for its sustainability program. Earlier this year, HealthPartners' efforts led to a $50,000 grant from Hennepin County for 426-bed Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn., allowing the facility to further its sustainability efforts. 

Regions Hospital and Lakeview Hospital in Minnesota, both part of HealthPartners, each work with a local vendor’s Food-to-Hogs program. A few times a week, food waste is picked up and dumped into trucks designed to cook the food to kill any pathogens, and is then fed to locally raised hogs. The process eliminates harmful methane gas production that food waste produces in landfills.

And an on-site composting facility at Hudson (Wis.) Hospital & Clinic turns food waste into compost for the community garden across the street. Last year, the health system saved $8,800 using these methods. Although it doesn’t seem like a lot, that’s money hospitals don’t have to spend, says Dana Slade, director of sustainability programs at HealthPartners.

“It’s the responsible thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s relatively easy to do,” he says.