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Rush University Medical Center food donation Photos courtesy of Rush University Medical Center

Excess food cut from waste stream at Rush Medical Center

A new relationship with a nearby shelter not only means extra production gets put to good use, but also helps build community within the hospital.

Three days a week, a shuttle bus leaves Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to make a short run to Franciscan Outreach, a nearby homeless shelter serving the city’s destitute. The bus carries packaged single meals and bulk containers of dishes like rice, chicken and salad, all made in the medical center’s retail, patient dining and catering kitchens for use on the various hospital menus, but left over after meal service was finished.

Before the relationship with Franciscan Outreach was initiated Jan. 9 (it had been piloted the previous month), the food would simply have been tossed, winding up in the waste stream. Now, it goes to serve a real social need, and also gives Rush staff a…well, a rush of good feeling, as the food is packaged by volunteers drawn from multiple departments in the hospital ranging from nursing and administration to, of course, nutrition services.

“It’s been a real collaboration across the organization with [people from different departments] coming down and everyone jumping on board to be part of helping donate,” offers Rush Kitchen Manager Amber Kent, who oversees the Surplus Project. “So I think it has really helped Rush as an organization to have these departments that maybe never crossed paths working together.”

The food donation program, called the Surplus Project, has also made the kitchen and its staff more conscious of waste, and even lessened the amount of excess being produced as the program has gone along.

“When we started [Surplus Project] we had an abundance of [excess] food and it has helped us be conscientious of our budget and how much we were overproducing and getting us back in line,” says Kent. “So we’ll still have food we can donate, but we can regulate how much that is and monitor what we’re producing and get us more in line with being more lean and efficient in our kitchen.”

Since the program started, the amount of food waste getting tossed has dropped from about 75 pounds a day to 30, which now consists mostly of the kinds of scraps and spoiled food that can’t be reused in any way.

As there is more leeway on the retail end to reuse overproduction in its own operation, much of what goes to Surplus Project from this area is only made available on Fridays, after the week is done (the retail cafeteria is closed over the weekend). On the other hand, because of the restrictions governing patient diets, excess food from patient dining does tend to be donated consistently, Kent explains.

“We can’t be creative and make a new stew for tomorrow [for the patient menu] because it has to go through a lot of channels to get put on the menu,” she says.

There is also excess now coming from the in-house catering operation following a recent policy change. Previously, catered event organizers were given the option of taking away the extra food after the event was over in lieu of seeing it get tossed. Now, they are given the option of having it donated to Franciscan Outreach.

“Now we just give them that talk at the beginning, when they’re booking the service, and we let them know we can either give them containers to take it home or they can donate it to the Surplus Project, and we’ve had an extreme amount of people who want to participate and donate it,” Kent offers. “That has also made them aware of what we’re doing and even [got them to] come down and help pack up meals and perhaps even help in the delivery process.”

Kent stresses the donated food has been safely handled. It is blast chilled to bring down temperatures and kept refrigerated until delivery. Everything is delivered cold.

“We tend to package and deliver it in 20 minutes,” Kent stresses.

Deliveries are made three times a week—Monday, Wednesday and Friday—and each delivery includes 40 portioned, packaged meals (120 a week), with the rest in bulk containers. That’s to help the shelter facilitate its dining program.

“Because the shelter is small so they have to have [people] come in in groups,” explains Kent. “By having some of the food already [preportioned] and ready for the first group, it gives their staff time to start [portioning out] the rest of it.”

That’s a great idea but it ran into a minor problem early on that might be blamed on excess generosity, as Rush staff tended to overfill the portioned packages, resulting in well-intentioned waste. Representatives of the shelter soon saw the problem and explained how to portion effectively, so the packages now each contain a reasonable meal that also allows the amount available to be stretched to feed as many as possible.

Shelter staff is also adept at utilizing whatever they are sent. “Anything we have, we send and they will find something to do with it,” Kent offers.

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