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


In this article: 

  • A significant portion of the food produced in the U.S. each year goes to waste. This waste often goes to landfills, increasing greenhouse gas emissions while impacting food insecurity.  

  • Providence is committed to reducing food waste sent to the landfill, including through practices like data tracking in cafeterias and composting food waste from across hospitals.  

  • Learn how Providence St. Patrick Hospital is implementing practices to decrease food waste and lower our carbon footprint. 

In the U.S., 30-40% of food goes uneaten through loss or waste. Moreover, food waste contributes to economic loss, food insecurity and greenhouse gas emissions that impact climate change. When we throw food away, we are also wasting the natural resources and land, farm labor and production work that it takes to get food to your plate. 

"As a major health system, Providence has a long history in promoting sustainable and resilient food systems in the Montana region,” says Sarah Johnson, BSN, RN, sustainability program manager at St. Patrick Hospital. “We could not do this work without the hard work and partnership of our food and nutrition services colleagues along with our valued community partners. Our focus on data has helped us immensely to set measurable goals and work together to do our part toward becoming carbon negative." 

As part of our environmental stewardship work, we are committed to addressing the impacts of climate change throughout the health care sector through our WE ACT framework, which addresses topics like energy efficiency, renewable energy, reduced anesthetic use and sustainable supply chains throughout Providence ministries in Alaska, California, Oregon, Texas and Washington. 

The food that we eat contributes to our well-being. As a large health care organization, Providence serves a lot of food – which is why we’re answering the call to cut down on calories and reduce our food waste and curb our environmental impact. 

Right-sizing food production at St. Patrick Hospital 

One challenge with food production in health care settings is knowing how much food to make to support patients, visitors and caregivers. That means coordinating food that is served in patient rooms, the cafeteria and elsewhere in the hospital.  

To ensure the food and nutrition services team had the best information on how much food to make, the team implemented Leanpath, an automated tracking technology that helps measure food waste and carbon emissions with the goal of reducing overall waste.  

With Leanpath, the team has been able to reduce overall food waste from the kitchen by 32% since 2021. That reduction means not only cutting back on what gets sent to the landfill but also cost savings. In 2022, the team saved more than $12,000 and avoided creating nearly five tons of food waste and 30 metric tons of CO2. Those numbers have only gotten larger in 2023, with more than $18,000 in savings and 8.5 tons of food waste and 55 metric tons of CO2 avoided.  

Leanpath enabled the team at St. Patrick Hospital to identify new initiatives to cut down on waste, including: 

  • Bringing back reusable silverware and dishes (which had been paused due to COVID-19) 
  • Charging for to-go containers  
  • Cutting down on standard tray accompaniments, including reducing condiments, salt, pepper, creamer, sugar and margarine 
  • Eliminating the use of plastic lids  
  • Increasing sustainable food purchases from 7% in 2021 to more than 21% in 2022 
  • Offering a price reduction for filling reusable coffee cups, saving up to 500 cups a month from the landfill 
  • Replacing single-use condiment cups with reusable dishware, saving an average of 400 condiment cups per day 

These changes had a positive impact on the patient experience, with Press Ganey patient satisfaction survey scores around patient meals increasing throughout 2022.  

Composting for the community 

Not all food waste can be eliminated, but the St. Patrick Hospital team was keen to find ways to responsibly dispose of unavoidable waste. For food that would otherwise end up in a landfill, Sarah and her team worked to put food scraps to use in Missoula through composting.  

The team began composting on the food prep side, with all the food scraps from the cafeteria and any leftover food on returned dishware heading to designated compost bins. Adding patient trays to the composting rotation increased compost volume by 33% in the first week alone. This shift required a process change in collaboration with the nursing staff to bring used trays into the dish room. 

One challenge with composting is that Joint Commission standards around health and safety require cleaning composting bins daily. That means that the team had to pause composting in the winter because the outdoor cleaning area freezes over.  

These changes required a team effort, including collaboration with food and nutrition services, patient services, facilities, nursing staff and more, but this engagement meant measurable success that is benefiting the Missoula community.  

“By decreasing the amount of waste in our community, we are cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, improving the air quality and providing fertile compost to support growers,” says Johnson. “As we’ve implemented these activities, we’ve gotten positive feedback from caregivers and patients who feel better about the food in the hospital because they know we’re avoiding the landfill.” 

Healthy patients, healthy communities  

Providence St. Patrick Hospital’s work to combat food waste doesn’t stay within the hospital walls. The team works closely with partners throughout the Missoula community to strengthen sustainable food systems and fight food insecurity, including providing food vouchers for patients for fresh food at farmers’ markets. These partners include: 

  • Community Food & Agriculture Coalition 
  • Garden City Harvest 
  • Missoula Food Bank & Community Center 
  • Montana Produce Prescription Collaborative 
  • Western Montana Grower’s Coop 


Contributing Caregiver 

Sarah Johnson, BSN, RN sustainability program manager at Providence St. Patrick Hospital 

Find a doctor 

If you are looking for a physician, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory

Download the Providence App 

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app

Related resources 

Environmental Stewardship at Providence: WE ACT 2022 Year in Review 

How we’re reducing the carbon intensity of food 

How we’re cutting down our landfill waste 

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