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Portion Control: A Case Study in Reducing Food Waste Through Information Technology

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

By Amy Hammes, Waste Warrior

Food grown in the United States is abundant, cheap and has allowed for unprecedented prosperity. These factors have also led to immense waste of valuable resources. Of the 591.4 billion pounds of perishables grown in the United States each year, it is estimated that nearly half is discarded. (Bloom, 2010) While previous generations might have considered wasting food “sinful,” today it has become a social norm; the collateral damage of a highly productive agricultural system that is enabled by inexpensive transportation and disposal capabilities.

Even cost-conscious commercial kitchen operations consider scrap waste an undesirable but inevitable part of their operational expenditures, throwing away 4-10% of their food purchases. (Copeland, 2011) Further adding to the waste problem is the consumer’s desire for near-perfect aesthetics.

These factors in aggregate means that much of what is grown will never reach the plate. Yet, new economic realities, such as higher disposal fees, government scrutiny of greenhouse gas emissions from decomposition and transportation, and the slow awakening that “waste = money” are leading organizations to take a closer look at their food footprint. This case study will examine how an innovative food waste tracking technology is helping a non-profit hospital system analyze their entire kitchen operations in order to reduce the amount of food scraps produced. Gundersen Lutheran Hospital System

The healthcare industry is generally considered highly wasteful and has been generally slow to embrace sustainable practices. Yet, that is not the case for Gundersen Lutheran Health System, a non-profit hospital group based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Their award-winning sustainable initiatives are steered by the vision of CEO Jeffery E. Thompson, MD who aims to move the organization towards energy independence and eliminating waste. (Thompson, 2011) These programs look to not only improve sustainability efforts, but also examine what kind of payback or savings can be expected for the hospital. The savings accrued from efficiency and other measures allow the non-profit hospital to redirect these resources towards improving care and strengthening community relations.

Many of Gundersen Lutheran’s operational decisions have been guided by their comprehensive environmental strategy, Envision. The Envision plan is led by four key interconnected principles: energy, recycling, sustainable design and waste management and control. (Envision, 2011) The latter category, waste management, is now advancing towards the “control” arena through preventative measures. According to Sustainability Coordinator Tom Thompson, “we wanted to look at ways to recycle, but even more importantly, how to reduce waste before it is created.” (2011) Recently, this involved taking a deeper look at the kitchen operations and assessing the amount of pre-consumer food waste created from the roughly 21,000 meals served per week. (Sacksteder, 2011) He and his team decided to figure out what food was being discarded and the best possible strategy to mitigate it.

As previously noted, some food waste is inevitable in professional kitchens, yet this is even more problematic in the heavily regulated, high volume hospital cafeterias that must serve its patients and staff 24/7. Gunderson Lutheran takes this a step further with stringent in-house rules that dictate food dishes out longer than four hours cannot be sold, even if it is still safe and edible. (Sacksteder, 2011) This is a highly precautionary safety procedure that leads to literally, throwing away batches of soup and other dishes several times a day.

Approaches: Information through Tracking

Tom Thompson began holding strategy meetings with various stakeholders, including dietary staff and engineers to create an action plan to tackle the non-profit’s food waste challenges. He learned of an internal food waste tracking system called ValuWaste from LeanPath, a technology company that helps hospitality and food service clients reduce waste at the preparation and operational stage (known as source reduction). (LeanPath, 2011) There are four parts to the Valuate program: training, tracking and measuring, Advantage software program and coaching services. The basic philosophy of the Lean Path system is to first analyze the operation in order to set up baselines from which goals are determined, monitored and measured. (Copeland, 2011) This is first done through the Valuate tracking mechanism, consisting of a touch screen terminal and connected scale. Employees in the food preparation process enter the food item category and the weight is auto time-stamped under their name. The data is imported to the Advantage 4 software application where management can view activity on an easy to read dashboard, as well as generate summaries and graphs. (LeanPath, 2011) These reports highlight what specific food scraps were discarded, frequency, time and date and their monetary value. Encouraged by the testimonials of other hospital’s successes using the tracking system, Gundersen Lutheran launched the LeanPath program on July 2010 with Certified Executive Chef Thomas Sacksteder serving as Program Manager. (Gundersen Lutheran Case Study, 2011)

Success: Finding Solutions Through Uncovering Hidden Problems

It was soon determined that the Dietary department was generating a baseline of 24 tons of food waste annually, which was a surprising figure to the staff. However, armed with this new knowledge they could then establish targets and areas improvement. Additionally, hidden problems were soon being uncovered which led to procedures and menu adjustments. (Sacksteder, 2011) The results have been significant: total food waste had decreased by 50% within eight months, saving the hospital $25,000. (This diversion figure is now closer to 70%.). Sustainability Coordinator Thompson confirmed that the LeanPath system has paid for itself within seven months--much sooner than 10-12 months projected. (Thompson, 2011)

The most noticeable change has been in the trash bin itself. The kitchen staff had been emptying the trash bin three times per day while today it’s once daily. ValuWaste has not only identified the kinds of waste generated but the total value of ingredients in each batch. For instance, if a dish costs $12 to produce but 1/3 goes unsold, it equates to $4 in waste. This has led to operational changes like adjusting the amount of soup that is warmed according to the most optimal times. (Sacksteder, 2011)

According to Executive Chef Sacksteder, an enthusiastic supporter of the system, once the kitchen’s data is initially set up, the software does most of the work. (2011) He says that what makes this technology so important, from a program manager’s perspective, is the array of information the system provides for a nominal investment of time and effort. The 30 seconds it takes employees to utilize the ValuWaste scale for food waste has become second nature and standard operating procedures. Sacksteder estimates he is spending roughly 60 minutes per week monitoring the reports and examining each staff member’s activity. Additional time may be required on program issues during staff meetings and training.

Armed with diagnostic capabilities that can be constantly monitored, LeanPath has also helped the department reduce food waste through accountability and feedback channels. Identifying the employees who generated food waste allows Sacksteder to gather additional information and recognize possible knowledge gaps, such as knife skills to more efficiently cut produce. As the only culinary trained chef on staff, he has began producing training videos based on these discoveries to ensure each new employee understands standard procedures. Through a recent weekly report, he discovered that an unusually large amount of spaghetti had been discarded. After a quick investigation, he discovered it had been due to improper wrapping in the refrigerator; a problem he didn’t realize existed. A training session was soon conducted to ensure proper techniques and why it is important. Without the ability to pinpoint inefficiencies, these problems would have continued to go largely undetected--perpetuating these hidden costs.

Community Success: Reducing Through Donation

The new knowledge gained by accurate capture rates from the LeanPath system has created the incentive for Gundersen Lutheran to find additional opportunities to reduce beyond the kitchen boundaries. The non-profit hospital began donating much of their unsaleable food to another non-profit, the local Salvation Army Food Pantry and Kitchen. (Thompson, 2011) Stringent hospital guidelines, as well as Salvation Army’s own food safety oversight, provides assurances that the food is approved for human consumption. Each month over a 1,000 perfectly safe, fresh, homemade meals that would have otherwise been discarded, feed the community’s needy. While this donation program could have been facilitated without the LeanPath system in place, Thompson notes that the tracking program was a catalyst in fully understanding their food waste as well as a tool to help track the value of the gifts. The hospital produces a community benefit report with quantifiable statistics and now includes the food donation initiatives. He hopes that other professional kitchens join them in putting these resources to a much more productive use for more charitable organizations feeding the hungry.

Food for Thought

For all the seemingly environmental or moral reasons for not wasting food, the bottom line for any organization is still very much an economic one. The double whammy that comes from wasting money on discarded food and then paying for the disposal of it is imposing a much higher financial burden than many kitchens may realize. Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems, as a non-profit organization, is making saving money and cost cutting an even greater priority as disposal costs increase. The new practice of using technology to monitor and track what food waste is produced, is helping the hospital meet the economic justification and values of their Envision mission while putting resources to use in their community instead of in a landfill.

Works Cited

About LeanPath. (n.d.). Retrieved 2011, 28-April from LeanPath: http://www.leanpath.com/company.shtml

Bloom, J. (2010). American Wasteland: How Americans Throw Away Nearly Half Its Food. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Copeland, A. (2011, 17-April). Business Development. (A. Hammes, Interviewer)

Easy changes help reduce food waste, save money. (n.d.). Retrieved 2011 24-April from Gundersen Lutheran Health System: http://www.gundluth.org/upload/docs/WhoWeAre/Green/FoodWaste.pdf

Envision. (n.d.). Environmental Leadership: Waste Management and Recycling. Retrieved 2011, 28-April from Gundersen Lutheran: http://www.gundluth.org/?id=4654&sid=1
Products and Services. (n.d.). Retrieved 2011, 28-April from LeanPath: http://www.leanpath.com/products.shtml

Sacksteder, T. (2011, 26-April). Nutrion Services Manager . (A. Hammes, Interviewer)

Thompson, T. (2011, 26-April). Sustainability Coordinator. (A. Hammes, Interviewer)

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