Hospital Food Waste: Reducing Waste and Cost to Our Health Care System and Environment

Deborah A. Saber, PhD, RN, CCRN-K; Roya Azizi, PhD; Stacia Dreyer, PhD; Deborah Sanford, MBA, MSN, RN; Hannah Nadeau, BSN, RN


Online J Issues Nurs. 2022;27(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Food waste economically and environmentally impacts every industry in the U.S., including healthcare systems. The Environmental Protection Agency's Food Recovery Hierarchy provided the framework for this study that examined how hospitals in one rural northeastern state processes food waste. Methods included semi-structured interviews with hospital nutrition service experts were conducted at seven facilities across the state. Findings indicate: (1) food is largely disposed of via in-sink disposal processes, making quantification difficult; (2) food donation is a viable humanitarian and waste prevention strategy, but is not widely used because of litigious concerns; and (3) culinary education promotes food repurposing strategies. The discussion highlights the need for nurse leaders to inform policy makers about changes that could positively impact the environment while reducing the waste stream and hospital expenditures.


Discussions of waste reduction in healthcare generally focuses on failure of care delivery, lack of care coordination, overtreatment, pricing failures (e.g., overpricing of procedures such as computed tomography scans), and fraud and abuse (Cafarella, 2012). Food, however, is a major waste stream component produced every day by patients, healthcare workers, and visitors. Globally, approximately 1.3 million tons of food is lost or wasted each year. Food losses can occur anywhere in the food chain between producer and consumer; food waste results when safe and nutritious food is discarded (Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations [FAO], 2021). At the same time, nearly 1 billion people around the world go hungry (FAO, 2021). This juxtaposition between waste/loss and need represents a major social and environmental problem which must be addressed. In the United States alone, approximately 31% of the food supply (133 billion pounds) is wasted annually (United States Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2021a), producing significant methane emissions. As a potent greenhouse gas, methane has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (EPA, 2021a). This paper examines the food waste management and disposal methods, findings and implications from a study conducted in rural northeastern United States hospitals.