While multitudes of people around the world face food insecurity, a whopping third of food is lost or wasted. This equates to more than a billion tonnes of food valued at nearly $940 billion every year.
Australia is a part of the problem: five million tonnes of food reach landfill annually, which would fill 9,000 Olympic sized swimming pools, according to OzHarvest. This comes at no small cost – wasted food costs the Australian economy around $20 billion a year.
Apart from the financial cost, food waste impacts the environment. Precious resources such as water and energy are used to grow, transport and sell food. And every tonne of food that ends up in landfill results in 750kg of carbon dioxide being released into an already overloaded atmosphere.
Every business, school and household needs to pull their weight to address the problem. But health care facilities face unique challenges in dealing with their contribution.
Food waste challenges in health care
Food surplus accounts for half of all waste generated by the health system, squandering resources, labour and finances.
In 2015, an Australian audit found that 200 grams of food was wasted, on average, per bed each day in hospitals and aged care facilities. Most of this came from uneaten food on patient trays. Other sources are hospital kitchens and cafeterias, according to a US survey.
In hospitals, food service revolves around health care procedures, generating several different routes for food waste. These include bulk cooking, long delays between ordering and serving, and missed meals due to hospital procedures, fasting, test scheduling, and patients being checked out.
Patients and older adults are more likely to have poor appetite and treatments and conditions that limit eating through symptoms like pain and nausea.
Palatability of hospital food is a key issue, as well as packaged food that is unopened and thrown away or half-eaten – which also contributes to plastic pollution.
These issues not only have implications for food waste, but also for patients’ nutrition intake.
Reducing food waste
Methods for serving patient meals have not changed in 30 years. Improved technologies offer several ways in which the issue of food waste – and associated problems like surplus food costs and malnutrition – can be addressed.
A study by HealthShare NSW reformed hospital food delivery using improved workflow processes and menus, staff training and technology. The project aimed to decrease the time lag between ordering and getting meals to four hours or less, improve food quality and nutrition and increase patient choice.
As a result, improvements were made at various stages of the process, reducing patient food waste by half. Patients’ food intake also increased considerably.
Other health care facilities have switched to a room service model for feeding patients. This personalised approach results in better patient satisfaction, in turn improving nutrition intake and reducing food waste.
Melbourne’s health department joined other organisations to trial recycling organics, finding it a viable way to divert wasted food from landfill.
In all, combining streamlined technologies and procedures for storing, ordering, delivering and disposing of food with improved patient choice, food quality and dining environments can improve nutrition intake and reduce food waste – a win-win on all counts.