The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, in the United States, more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in everyday trash. Reducing food waste would not only save space in overflowing landfills, but the EPA reports it would also help address climate change by reducing methane emissions.

At The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Nutrition Services is drastically reducing food waste in landfills by diverting hundreds of tons of unused food through recycling and repurposing.

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Getting unused food to those who need it

The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center has been a longtime partner of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and its Second Servings program. Ready-to-serve food, unused by the hospital, heads to Second Servings for soup kitchens and emergency shelters.

“We donate about 40,000 pounds of food each year, mostly from the main medical center campus,” says Mike Folino, associate director of Nutrition Services. “In earlier years, we donated more, but we’re constantly learning to adjust our production to create less leftover food in the first place.”

Medical center chefs and clinicians also show some pantry recipients how to cook that food, through the James Mobile Education Kitchen. The team travels to underserved areas to distribute food samples and hold cooking and nutrition demonstrations.

“We’re able to show people how to turn that donated food into something healthy that they want to eat,” says Jim Warner, program director of Food Service Administration in Nutrition Services.

“For some, the knowledge of how to cook has skipped a generation. We can provide recipes, but until you put a knife in someone’s hand and show them how, they may not know what to do with a spaghetti squash.”

Grounds for All

An initiative that began at Ohio State in July 2018 sends coffee grounds and “pre-consumer food waste” to a local composting facility, which turns the waste into nutrient-rich material that’s reused in gardens throughout central Ohio, including in the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s own Ross Heart Hospital Community Garden and the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute Garden of Hope.

Jim Warner, program director of Food Services Administration, opens 45-gallon totes holding coffee grounds headed to become compostKnown as “Grounds for All,” the project contains two phases: 
  • In Phase 1, coffee grounds and coffee filters are collected from Berry Café and Thompson Library on the Ohio State University campus and from throughout the medical center, including from EspressOasis and partner café Au Bon Pain. They’re then sent to local composter Innovative Organics.
  • Phase 2 began last week in the medical center’s central production kitchen, which prepares food that’s sent throughout the University Hospital campus and many outlying medical center facilities. The kitchen separates pre-consumer waste – the food scraps that don’t make it to patient trays and can’t be used otherwise – and sends it along with those coffee grounds to be turned into compost.

Phase 1 keeps about 100,000 pounds of coffee grounds from reaching a landfill each year. Phase 2 diverts another estimated 90,000 pounds of waste annually. 

Through an agreement with Innovative Organics, the medical center gets 4% of the weight of that waste back in the form of compost to use in its gardens. 

A grant from the Ohio State University Sustainability Fund recently provided a walk-in cooler, located within the 12th Avenue parking garage, to store the coffee grounds and other food waste until the compost service can retrieve it. 

“The cooler allows us to commit much more fully to this sustainable program,” Warner says. “It costs more to keep the waste cold, but the price is worth it to prevent the mold growth, which could become a big problem in a hospital.”

Diverting other food waste

Because food that’s reached patient trays is considered “infectious waste” in a hospital, it’s difficult to sort and can’t be used in compost. At the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, this “post-consumer food waste” is sent to an onsite biodigester, which turns the leftovers into “gray water” that’s processed at a local water treatment facility for future use.

This keeps waste from heading to the landfill, but the process can produce harmful methane gas, Folino explains, so Nutrition Services is exploring more sustainable methods to divert this waste.

Recycling whenever possible

The medical center’s goal of recycling every material possible grows more successful each day. That’s because of individual staff members who champion that process, Folino and Warner say.

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Environmental Services staff member Deshawn Norah and cook Deann Banner both immediately recognized the value of recycling and composting once the sustainability program began.

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“If you separate just the cardboard from regular trash, it makes so much more room in trash cans, but also in landfills,” Norah says. “Recycling is such a good thing – there’s so much that can be reused.”

Banner says she hopes more people and organizations pitch in.

“I know not everyone recycles, but with labeled bins throughout the facilities, it’s so easy, from paper and cardboard to aluminum cans,” she says. “When is everyone going to catch on?”

With a goal of becoming “zero waste” by 2025, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is steadily adding initiatives to evolve into a more sustainable, environmentally friendly organization.

“The challenge now is to get others at The Ohio State University on board with similar sustainability initiatives,” Warner says. “As a land-grant university originally founded with a focus on agriculture, we can come full-circle, ecologically and philosophically.”