Maria Simmons, RD, is no hippie. In fact, until a couple years ago she knew little about developing sustainable food programs and eco-design. Yet today, Simmons runs a nearly all-organic hospital foodservice program and knows off the top of her head that a commercial pulper can turn 15 trash cans of waste into one. And she’s not alone; foodservice operators across the country are going green.
Many factors are driving the green movement in foodservice, from meeting consumer demand for eco-friendly products to conserving resources and dollars to joining a global effort to protect and preserve our natural environment. While motivations may differ, many challenges of going green remain the same: budget constraints, limited space, labor or equipment and, of course, knowing where to start.
Think Global, Buy Local
“A couple years ago, our hospital partnered with a local chef for some cooking demos for Heart Healthy Month,” says Simmons, manager of patient foodservice and chair of the nutrition action committee at Swedish Covenant Hospital, on Chicago’s North Side. “He invited me to an organic festival on Navy Pier and that’s where I started to learn about local sustainability, fair trade and greener foodservice operations.”
“It’s definitely a learning process,” says Simmons, whose program uses organic produce with a preference for items coming from no more than a few hundred miles away. While there is limited evidence that organic produce is more nutritious for consumption, the absence of chemical pesticides and (if it’s local) shorter transport distances leave a gentler impression on the environment.
But costs and logistics, such as availability and transportation, tend to be among the issues raised by foodservice operators. Staying in close communication with suppliers about what foods are being harvested, monitoring what is in season and having a flexible menu that can incorporate changes on short notice is key. “For example, when they were in season, the organic strawberries we used were the same price as the other strawberries. Local organic in-season produce is usually comparably priced,” says Simmons. “My supplier can usually give me a prediction about what produce is coming up two weeks to a month in advance and I can work with that.”
One strategy Simmons uses is to emphasis the seasons in the hospital’s offerings. Instead of naming a specific vegetable on menus, Swedish Covenant offers “seasonal vegetables,” allowing Simmons to accommodate a shorter lead time in ordering. “Sustainable food programs require more monitoring, time and effort,” says Simmons.
Monica Theis, MS, RD, senior lecturer for at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works with the Farm-to-School program in Madison to assist schools and other on-site foodservice operations in sourcing local farmers, ranchers or fishers. “The most common challenges expressed by directors is a need for a consistent and reliable source of supply,” says Theis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Code requires food be purchased from an approved source. Because local growers do not necessarily need to be licensed, they may not be inspected by a government authority.
“This means the foodservice director must take on the responsibility of visiting the producer to ensure the product is grown, harvested, stored, washed and transported in a safe manner,” says Theis. “You need to ask key questions on issues such as water testing, worker hygiene and food handling procedures.”
If it sounds like adopting sustainable food practices means additional work and education, it does. For this reason, many green foodservice professionals suggest starting small. “It’s more feasible to start with one or two products at a time,” says Timothy Stein, MPS, RD. A foodservice consultant based in Colorado, Stein played a key role in developing a sustainable foods program for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the nation’s largest park-management company.
Simmons agrees. “We pick and choose. About 90 percent of our produce is organic and half of our cereals. Depending on how we’re going to use it, we’ll opt for grass-fed, hormone-free beef. You can’t go 100-percent green overnight, but we have managed to develop our program without raising our expenses significantly,” Simmons says.
“Take a look at how greener options might affect the quality and cost of your product. Determine what you can do to offset the cost, such as scale back expenses in another area,” says Stein, who serves on the board of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that provides tools for running sustainable foodservice businesses. “Don’t be afraid to consider passing a cost onto your customer or guest,” he says, addint that customers may be more accepting of a price increase than you think. “Consumer demand for local and organic products has increased significantly. This is not a fad, it’s a very strong trend. People care where their food comes from and how farmers are treated,” says Stein.
What if there is no one to pass the expense to? Are sustainable food programs out of reach of nonprofit organizations with limited funding and tight budgets? No, says Diane Papillion, MPH, RD, nutrition services director of Meals on Wheels and More, in Austin, Texas, which prepares meals for homebound and congregate clients and children. “Local sustainable food practices are really challenging when you receive federal money, but we are working towards using more of these practices,” she says. “We recently started using produce from local farms biweekly in the Meals for Kids program. If all goes well, we aim to start integrating local produce in our adult meal offerings.” Papillion’s strategy: taking it step-by-step and collaborating with another Austin nonprofit organization called the Sustainable Food Center.
Waste Not, Want Not
Collaboration is one way the Minneapolis campus of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota is reducing food waste. “For the last year and a half, we have donated food left over from large events catered by the hospital’s foodservice department,” says Lisa Nadeau, RD, LD, operations manager of nutrition services, which is contracted by Sodexho. Before the donation program, all the leftover food would end up in the garbage. “We work with Second Harvest Heartland, which provides containers for the leftovers,” says Nadeau. “We put the extra food in the containers and they come pick them up. It’s very easy.”
The foodservice department’s room service-style program, begun in 2004, is also reducing food waste. “By giving patients the ability to order from a menu when they are actually hungry, they eat more and waste less,” says Nadeau, who also finds recipients for donated non-food items such as old equipment and silverware.
In the world of solid waste management, “source reduction,” includes looking at product packaging, quantity of disposables and quantity of food produced to cut down on the amount of solid waste generated. Source reduction is one component of an integrated solid waste management system. Another component is recycling.
Since the late 1990s, various Veterans Affairs Medical Center kitchens have been making green strides through efforts such as recycling cardboard, cans and cooking oil; using energy- and water-efficient equipment; and installing pulpers and crushers for decreased volume waste. “It takes about 10 seconds to break down a box,” says Barbara Hartman, MS, RD, LD, chief of nutrition and foodservice at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.V. “Recycling does require extra labor, but in our kitchens, there is enough staff to incorporate that labor into the work day.” As with any program, says Hartman, measuring outcomes of your recycling efforts can help evaluate your program’s success, identify areas of improvement and ensure you are on the right track.
When it comes to conserving resources, experts say going green can be good for not only the environment, but your budget as well. According to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Food Service Technology Center, as much as 80 percent of the $10 billion annual energy bill for the commercial foodservice sector does no useful work. These lost energy dollars are wasted in the form of excess heat and noise generated by inefficient appliances, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, lighting and refrigeration.
ENERGY STAR, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, identifies and promotes energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ENERGY STAR label can be found on major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics and more. Operators who invest strategically can cut utility costs 10 to 30 percent without sacrificing service, quality, style or comfort, while making significant contributions to a cleaner environment, according to the ENERGY STAR Web site.
In addition to energy-efficient equipment, eco-friendly detergents and products are finding a place in the greening of foodservice. In August, cleaning and sanitizing manufacturer Ecolab introduced the Apex™ system, a line of warewashing products that uses non-caustic chemicals. Apex products come in a compact solid form that significantly reduces transportation shipments compared to bulkier liquid detergents.
“We look at the net cost to the customer for the result; in this case, clean dishes,” says Michael J. Monahan, vice president of external relations at Ecolab, who says the company will train staff on using the products and service the equipment to operate at optimal efficiency. “The Apex products cost more per pound than other warewashing detergents, but when you factor in the utility savings and training, it actually costs less to use the Apex system.”
Because of their concentration, eco-friendly kitchen products generally require significantly less packaging and offer customers reduced recycling and refuse requirements. “For example, instead of a 5-gallon pail of dish detergent, the Apex detergent comes wrapped in cellophane that, when empty, can be balled up into something smaller than your hand,” says Monahan. “It’s easier to pitch than the pail and offers significant end-of-life cycle costs for competitive products.”
Paper or plastic? What about neither?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 64 billion paper cups and plates, 73 billion Styrofoam and plastic plates and 190 billion plastic containers and bottles are thrown away every year in the United States.
“Our first suggestion to foodservice operators is to try to cut back on using disposables at all,” says Virginia Fornillo of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste. “Plastic and Styrofoam have petroleum-based chemicals and additives, so they not only use oil, but can cause greenhouse gas emissions in every step of the process: oil extraction from the earth, transportation, refining and eventual manufacturing of the end-use product.”
Since paper made from virgin wood contributes to forest depletion, many environment-conscious groups recommend using products made from recycled materials. And while the EPA promotes recycling and using recycled products, Fornillo cautions that this too “can be a sticky wicket” that may require a closer look when choosing your products. “If waste is being shipped to a recycling and manufacturing plant in China that is using old technology that spews stuff into the air, then shipping those recycled products back… that product may not be as green as you think,” she says. “So we [the EPA] try to focus on reducing the use of disposables in the first place.”
But since replacing throw-away items with silverware, plates and linens isn’t feasible for all foodservice operations, biodegradable and compostable disposables provide a sustainable alternative to Styrofoam, plastic and paper products. Made from readily renewable sources like sugar cane fiber, corn and potato, they take less energy to manufacture and are not made from toxic or pollution-causing sources.
Currently there is an environment-friendly substitute for just about every disposable item in foodservice, including napkins, paper towels and facial tissues; trays and tray liners; cold and hot cups; lids; straws; forks, knives, spoons and sporks; to-go packaging; salad containers; cleaning products, plates and bowls. “If you are going to use disposables, it is best if they are recyclable or compostable,” says Fornillo. “So rather than throwing them in the regular garbage to go to the landfill, you can through biodegradable disposables in with your food waste to be composted.”
While eco-friendly disposable products are typically 10 percent to 30 percent more expensive, savings may be found in other areas. Products may cost less to ship because they often weigh less and their biodegradability means they can be commercially composed, reducing traditional garbage collection fees.
But would-be green facilities who find the latest biodegradable products beyond their budgets don’t need to give up. Sustainable food programs, waste reduction, recycling and energy-conservation are big endeavors that take time, planning and money. Connect with local and national organizations, share experiences with colleagues and take going green one step at a time. “Every year we do a little better,” says Hartman of the V.A. Medical Center in Martinsburg. “Trying to make all the changes at once can be costly and overwhelming. “It’s good to take a look at what you are doing, make adjustments where you can and plan for larger changes. It is absolutely worth the effort.”