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Advancing Medical Research With A Side of Lettuce

Advancing Medical Research With A Side of Lettuce

By Garrett Lucas CDM, CFPP – Director of Dining Services, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX

Within the heart of the Texas Medical Center in Houston, we serve breakfast and lunch every day for approximately 3,000 people at the Baylor College of Medicine. Unlike most Morrison Healthcare cafés, we only operate Monday through Friday and serve a guest population consisting of college researchers, teachers, and other Baylor employees. We’re also unique because we serve only retail (café) guests and no hospital patients.

Like all of my team members, I’m continually searching for ways to stop food waste, which includes salvaging excess food and a variety of fruit and vegetable scraps. For example, what do you do with a core of lettuce?  Fortunately, we’ve come up with a solution: donating food that helps fuel one of the nation’s leading institutions in biomedical research.

I recently read an article in Food Management magazine on Bucknell University’s sustainability program to provide fresh produce to research monkeys. Knowing about the critical research that Baylor is doing to improve human lives, I thought, why not do that here? So, I approached the research animal care group to see if we could do the same: eliminate food waste and provide better food for these special animals.

We met with the facility’s administrators and veterinarians and found that our scraps were a match for the animals’ diets. After only two months, the program has met our goals and exceeded those of our client. We’ve reduced our food waste by a whopping 350 pounds each month while improving the animals’ diets and saving money for the college.

There is virtually no vegetable or fruit that isn’t a part of our donation program. The scraps range from onion peels, the tops of carrots and the cores of lettuce, kale, endive, and apples. We also provide bananas that are spotted or have broken cores; orange and pineapple peels; damaged berries and cucumbers, as well as the ends of squash and zucchinis. We prep, bag and separate all of the individual scraps and the college picks it up twice each week.

In addition to these foods, we’ve been able to provide the animals with other nutritional benefits. We supply the facility with large aluminum cans that are used to create molds for frozen fruits and juices that keep the animals engaged with healthy, sweet goodness for hours. The cans are recycled after use. We also freeze items and place them in biodegradable egg crates.

While the program meets our food waste goals, the college and animals are benefitting in other ways. For starters, we’ve been able to provide about 60% more kale scraps for the animals than the previous vendor, so the nutritional value of the food is significantly better.

Our food donations are also helping the college reduce food waste, and save money. Before we began providing food scraps, the animal care program was handcuffed by a restrictive ordering process, which forced them to buy 10 cases of kale when they only needed two. As a result, the animal care group often had to discard spoiled products that were unsafe for the animals.

We’ve met our initial goal of reducing food waste all while saving our landfills from more debris. However, I am most proud that our efforts go beyond “waste reduction” by strengthening our relationship with a valued partner that is working hard to advance human and animal health.

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