Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is going green. Recently, the hospital's dining program introduced several sustainability initiatives aimed at reducing its carbon footprint and fostering relationships with local farmers.
"A colleague came to me and said, you have the biggest restaurant in restaurant in town. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I realized, yeah, we do serve almost 10,000 customers every single week," says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Melanie Adams. "With that kind of volume, I started thinking about what we could do to support our community."
Atrium Health had established new sustainability goals for its hospitals around the time of Adam's realization. Once she decided on the specific initiatives she wanted to tackle, "getting senior leadership on board was easy, because it was already an organizational priority," she explains.
One key area involved reducing the use of disposable plastic products, starting with selling a single brand of boxed water instead of bottled in the hospital's retail outlets. Though the switch dramatically reduced the number of water choices - previously, customers could choose from 25 different bottled water products - the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Most of what I've heard is, 'this makes sense,'" she says.
Adams also began quietly setting out china plates and silverware alongside the standard disposable plates and utensils, giving customers the opportunity to choose what they preferred. "We're in healthcare, so many people still grab their food and take it back to their unit to eat. But there's a huge population that sits in the cafeteria to eat, and each month, we're noticing more people are utilizing the reusable options," she says. Next month, dining services will begin introducing signage about the hospital's sustainability initiatives, which Adams hopes will encourage more customers to reach for the china. "It's an opportunity to educate a diverse customer base," she explains.
Two trash compactors were purchased for the cafeteria as well. By simply compacting the trash generating in the dining hall, Adams was able to reduce garbage output from roughly 20 bags per day to just one or two. "That's helped us significantly reduce the number of plastic garbage bags we use," she says.
A newly-launched composting program has served as an opportunity to slash food waste while strengthening partnerships with local farmers. Started in January, the program started off composting food scraps produced in one of the hospital's kitchens. Foodservice staff completed an initial training before the program kicked off, though there's still been a bit of a learning curve. "We got some bins rejected in January, so we did some more training to work out the kinks," Adams says. In total, the hospital composted 1,889 pounds of food waste in January and 2,907 pounds of food waste in February. Adams expected the numbers for March to be higher still.
The compost is picked up by vendors and brought to local farms that have partnered with Atrium Health to grow food for the hospital. "We can then use that produce in our cafeteria. It's a circle of the plate that makes perfect sense," says Adams. A portion of the produce is also sold in the hospital's seasonal farmer's market display case, which launched last fall, while additional produce is given to local food insecurity programs. "We have to start taking care of our community," Adams says. "This is an investment."
Since the start of the new initiatives in January, roughly 12% of the waste produced by dining services is now being diverted away from landfills. As Adams and her team continue to ramp up the program, she hopes that number will rise to 60% within a year.
Many of the changes called for an up-front investment from Atrium Health, particularly things like purchasing the new trash compactors and paying for compost removal. But the health system knows that the costs will be recouped down the road and ultimately lead to savings. "Remember that if we didn't compost these materials, they would go into the general trash stream, and we would pay a regular trash hauler to pick them up," associate vice president of facilities administration Kim Carrison told a local business paper.
But for Adams, the benefits go beyond just cost-savings. "It's about giving back. Things aren't getting better in the world. So what can I do to help change that?"