Sustainable plates: How Providence is curbing food waste

March 1, 2024 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which harms the health of the planet. As a leader in advancing environmental stewardship efforts in health care, Providence is working to cut food waste across its sites.

  • One of these sites, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, is curbing food waste by finding new ways to reuse extra food on-site, donating food to community organizations and partnering with vendors with robust sustainability programs of their own.

  • Every food waste reduction initiative helps on the journey to sustainability, and we can all make efforts in our homes, like composting and sourcing locally, to reduce our own food waste.

Food is an important part of our health, but how we use food also contributes to the health of the planet. Unfortunately, 33% of food produced worldwide is wasted every year, with this food loss leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to food insecurity.

Providence is working to curb that number throughout its ministries and affiliates. Providence has been an innovator in advancing environmental stewardship practices in health care and has committed to a goal to divert more than 50% of its waste – including food waste – away from landfills by 2030.

Using an industry-leading framework called “WE ACT” as a guide, Providence is focused on five key areas of environmental stewardship:

  • Waste reduction and segregation.
  • Energy and water efficiency and conservation.
  • Agriculture and food that is healthy, local, sustainable, low-carbon and low-waste.
  • Chemical stewardship to minimize use and exposures.
  • Transportation that is lower in greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to these food goals, that means reducing carbon emissions and food waste, encouraging local and sustainable food selection and using energy and water-efficient equipment in Food & Nutrition Services across the health system.

“When we started these programs back in 2019, we were ahead of the game in waste reduction and food donation,” says Joy Cantrell, executive chef at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center. “We put very little food in our landfills because we reuse leftover food or donate it to community organizations that can feed those in need. We have composting programs, but we end up composting only a small amount of food because we use so much of what we have.”

Limiting food waste at Providence

Cutting down on food waste is easier when there are strong partners to help. Providence’s partners, including Nature’s Produce and U.S. Foods, have robust sustainability programs that mean Providence can source locally and donate food to communities in need, including through the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The produce used at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center comes from Nature’s Produce, which sources most produce locally and has a proven composting and recycling operation. Similarly, U.S. Foods has a vigorous sustainability program for seafood and agricultural practices, including sourcing all food from within 400 miles.

Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center has also been partnering with Food Finders since 2019 to donate extra food locally. In 2023, the hospital donated nearly 6,000 pounds of food to organizations including the Village Family Service Center, International Families Association and Ascencia.

Cantrell has also shifted the hospital dining hall’s menu to be more sustainable at the start, including trying new recipes from sustainable chefs across the country, the Stop Food Waste Day cookbook and the US Foods sustainable seafood recipe book.

Some of these recipes, like the cabbage salad, garlic butter green beans and vegetable peel crispy toppings (to top soup and salads) have become cafeteria favorites, as has the weekly vegetable soup that uses up all the leftover veggies from the week before. The staff also make pita chips with leftover pita bread and pickles leftover vegetable rinds to cut back on the food scraps that go to compost or the landfill.

Of course, for cafeteria visitors with a sweet tooth, Cantrell has a sustainable solution.

“One of the most popular dishes in our cafeteria is our homemade banana bread, made with ripe bananas from the patient tray line,” says Cantrell. “We also use all our stale, leftover bread for bread pudding every Friday.”

Many of these efforts have proven not only sustainable but also healthy. For example, the hospital installed a steam oven system, saving energy and cooking food more healthily. The team also partnered with the American Heart Association on a heart-healthy, sustainable menu. Cantrell implemented meatless Mondays to offer more robust vegetarian options so cafeteria visitors can try things they have never tried before, like plant-based chicken or tofu side salads.

“Every day, the people who come to our cafeteria have a choice in what they eat,” says Cantrell. “We want to offer appetizing ways for them to eat more sustainability and reduce their environmental impact.”

Cutting food waste at home

Every little bit helps when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint in our communities. If you’re interested in throwing away less food at home, you can start by:

  • Composting your food scraps: Composting contributes to healthy soil and has lower greenhouse gas emissions than sending food to the landfill.
  • Eating a plant-forward diet: Try starting meatless Mondays or testing new kinds of protein like tofu, seitan or lentils.
  • Getting the most out of every ingredient: From using vegetable peels in stock to making croutons with leftover bread, try new ways to avoid throwing food away.
  • Sourcing locally: Find food from local farmers who use sustainable farming methods and grow organically without harmful chemicals.
  • Trying a low-waste recipe: Prepare carrot skin chutney, cauliflower tikka masala or coffee ground brownies.

“We have a great team of cooks that has thought of a lot of creative ways to reduce food waste, but those ideas don’t have to stay in our hospital,” says Cantrell. “I’ve been excited to be able to carry some of these practices over into my home.”

Contributing caregiver

Joy Cantrell is the executive chef for Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.

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Related resources

Environmental Stewardship at Providence: 2023 Year in Review

Partnering for good: How collaboration can reduce emissions

A new way to count calories: How Providence is cutting back on food waste

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.        

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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