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Serving Up Sustainability and Eliminating Food Waste in Hospital Cafeterias

UC San Diego Health has launched a new program as part of its sustainability efforts that diverts unused food from the landfill and instead helps those in need

Hospital cafeteria worker handling food
As part of the new program, fresh food is collected by team members in the kitchens and donated twice a week. Nearly 7,000 pounds of food have been donated since 2023.

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When visiting a UC San Diego Health hospital cafeteria, one wouldn’t be able to miss the rainbow of beautiful food dazzling the counters. From fresh salads and ripe fruit to hearty meals and sweet (healthy) treats, the delectable food offered in the hospital is there to provide nutritious meals for patients, visitors and staff that can aid in the healing process. 

“I truly believe that food heals and it’s so gratifying to see the meals we make are helping provide sustenance to not only our patients in need, but to our staff and visitors as well,” said Rodney Fry, executive chef at UC San Diego Health. “Not everyone thinks of the hospital as a place to eat, but the food we offer is delicious, nutritious and comforting.”

Fry works with a team that is continuously developing new menus that focus on preparing locally sourced, plant-based, antibiotic-free and sustainable dishes.  

Patients can choose their meals from a seasonal, cooked-from-scratch menu, and food is made to order in the kitchens. Registered dietitians are also available in the in-patient setting to provide nutritional counseling to patients as needed. 

When food is not eaten, where does it go?

Due to the nature of running a hospital cafeteria, there is extra food that was not consumed by guests or patients. 

Instead of sending this food to a landfill, the food and nutritional services team at UC San Diego Health has partnered with the health system’s sustainability department for an ingenious idea to save the food. 

As part of this new program, edible, fresh food that did not reach the cafeteria line or point of sale is donated to local organizations to help individuals in need, which diverts it from entering the landfills in San Diego County. 

“We originally started our food waste diversion program before the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the crisis impacted where we were able to donate,” said Jill Martin, director of food and nutritional services at UC San Diego Health. “We relaunched the program in 2023 and recently began coordinating donations from our newest hospital location, East Campus Medical Center.”

Food donations from UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest are sent to Hugs and Bags – A Love Movement. 

Food donations from Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla and East Campus Medical Center in the College Area are sent to San Diego Rescue Mission. 

According to Martin, nearly 7,000 pounds of food have been donated to these local nonprofits since 2023. Fresh food is collected by team members in the kitchens and sent to the organizations twice a week. 

Additional food donations, such as broccoli stems, carrot and berry tops, are sent to local farms in San Diego County for animal feed.

“These donations ensure that none of our pre-consumer food waste is entering the landfills,” said Martin. “We are also in the process of sorting post-consumer food waste to ensure it is composted and will be modeling a system our environmental services team has in place to compost landscape waste.” 

Practicing proactive sustainability in the kitchen

In addition to managing food waste sustainably, the food and nutritional services team at UC San Diego Health also proactively addresses climate change by looking at how the hospital system procures its food.  

In 2017, UC San Diego Health joined the Health Care Without Harm Cool Food Pledge, which incorporates more plant-based foods into hospital meal offerings and reduces food-related greenhouse gas emissions in return. 

“We’re aiming to lower carbon emissions by increasing our plant-based food purchases,” said Martin. “This is accomplished by ordering a smaller amount of animal proteins and instead purchasing a higher amount of plant-based protein, grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and beans. All while still following regulatory requirements for meals provided to hospitalized patients.”

“Our aim was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the year 2030, and we’ve already reached that goal.”

Martin and her team are now working to eliminate single-use plastics at the hospitals and hopes to reach that goal by 2030, if not sooner. 

“We are integrating sustainable practices into the way we make business decisions and in the way we provide outstanding patient care.”
Barbara Hamilton, director of sustainability and energy at UC San Diego Health

Sustainable, climate-friendly health care

What goes into the meals we eat is only one part of the sustainability puzzle. UC San Diego Health — the region’s only academic medical center — has become a leader in advancing and modeling sustainable health care practices, with a goal of becoming fossil-free by 2045.

“We have a comprehensive program that touches on all the different areas of our sustainable practices policy,” said Barbara Hamilton, director of sustainability and energy at UC San Diego Health. “These areas include food, energy, water, waste, procurement, transportation, climate and health equity.”

“We are integrating sustainable practices into the way we make business decisions and in the way we provide outstanding patient care.”

In 2021, the university also became the first health care provider in San Diego to join the United Nations’ Health Care Climate Challenge, Race to Zero. Additionally, UC San Diego Health joined the White House-HHS Health Sector Climate Pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.

The health system also focuses on how climate change affects the overall health of humans and is working to develop medical toolkits with clinical providers to bring this practice to the bedside at UC San Diego Health hospitals and clinics. 

“We’re currently the only hospital system in San Diego with a formalized sustainability department,” said Hamilton. “We hope to be the example that inspires others to start doing the work, too, as we’re all in this together in the effort to address climate change.”

Learn more about research and education at UC San Diego in: Climate Change

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