HealthPartners: Composting and animal feeding to reduce food waste

Food waste solutions | Case study


A Practice Greenhealth Case Study

“Organics recycling and food waste diversion remain very important to us, and we are slowly but surely working to expand both the number of facilities with organics recycling and the types of materials that can be recycled.” – Allison Egan, HealthPartners Sustainability Consultant

  • HealthPartners wanted to reduce sending organic waste to the landfill. They hoped to reduce their climate impact, lower their taxes, and recycle the nutrients found in food waste.
  • The health system partnered with a farmer, a commercial composter, and a community garden and received a grant to start an organics recycling program. 
  • In the first year of the program (2015), HealthPartners diverted 88 tons of food waste to livestock feed and composted 18.5 tons – and have since increased their numbers, 95 tons went to livestock and 55 tons were composted in 2021. 

The challenge

For many HealthPartners locations, there is also a financial incentive to divert food waste. In Minnesota, there is a tax of up to 70% on trash. There is no tax on organics or recyclables.


The solution

“Food waste segregation takes a team to buy into the process and to carry through to successful implementation.”

HealthPartners is a diverse organization with operations in two states and in both urban and rural settings. One organics diversion approach would not work at all locations. Ideally, HealthPartners would prefer to collect all organics (both food waste and non-food materials); however, that was a cost-prohibitive option in most locations, except for the headquarters, where full organics collection is in place. For two of the larger hospitals, they selected a “Food to Hogs” food diversion option. And, at one of the critical access hospitals, they elected to compost the food waste on-site, near the community garden and honey bee hives. In addition, Methodist Hospital was awarded a $50,000 grant in early 2016 to start a full organics segregation program.


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“It is a paradigm shift in how the material is classified. No longer is the food ‘waste,’ but a resource that has multiple potential beneficial uses.” 

Food waste segregation takes a team to take ownership of the process and to carry through to successful implementation. The team must have approval and buy-in from building management, nutrition and food services, environmental services and housekeeping, infection control, purchasing, and finance. Roles, expectations, and costs should all be discussed upfront so there are limited surprises upon start-up. 


Headquarters process

At HealthPartners headquarters, employees are responsible for segregating the post-consumer materials into the correct containers. HealthPartners also had volunteer “recycling umpires” staged at waste stations to aid the staff in proper segregation. 

All disposable “to-go” containers used at this facility are either compostable or recyclable. Organics collection bins are also in place throughout the headquarters facility, including all restrooms for non-food compostable materials like paper towels. 

Housekeeping transports all waste from the facility to the waste management area. The organics from headquarters are collected in a compactor and transported to a commercial composting facility by HealthPartners’ waste vendor. 


Hospitals’ process

At HealthPartners hospitals, only pre-consumer food wastes are currently segregated for either livestock feed or on-site composting. No disposable containers are collected from these facilities. Cafeteria staff are responsible for placing the food waste in mid-sized, lined, covered, and wheeled bins for storage and transport to the dock. 

At the dock, the bins await pick up by the farmer. The farmer comes to the hospital several times a week to ensure the food waste does not become a nuisance. Once at the farm, the food waste is steamed for a period of time, in accordance with State Department of Agriculture requirements, and then fed to the hogs. 

For the hospitals that compost on-site, the cafeteria staff collects and weighs all the food waste, including coffee grounds and filters, and the facility department takes the material to the compost piles periodically. The compost piles are turned at least monthly by the facility department to ensure proper aeration and to promote degradation.


Challenges and lessons learned

Develop a good educational plan and process map with input from all stakeholders is critical. Food waste segregation will affect many different groups and parts of the facility. Don’t leave any group out of the plan. Provide signage and educational materials at orientation and periodically over time to help train staff.

Start small and then ramp up. If the organization is diverting food waste, just start in the  cafeteria or a part of the cafeteria. See how it works, make adjustments on what does not work or work as well as anticipated, and move on. Ramp up and include more parts of the organization as time, space and other constraints allow.

Be patient. There will be setbacks. Have a backup plan and include others in developing the backup plan. Don’t take the setbacks personally and use them as learning experiences to make the program even stronger. Changing the way people have done things, sometimes for years or decades, takes time. Patience is a virtue that is necessary for the successful implementation of any sustainability initiative. Roll with the punches and remember the ultimate goal is to keep the food waste out of the landfill. 

Ensure the finance and leadership are on board. Starting a new program takes an initial investment. Make sure they know that the cost savings (if promised) will come long-term. Track, document and communicate back to leadership on the progress of the initiatives.

Pick a compatible vendor. Successful programs rely on key business partners like composters and consultants. Many times the vendor will not be familiar with how health care facilities run. 

Identify challenges specific to health care operations, including pick-up constraints and logistical requirements. Open, transparent, and frequent communications will pay off in the long run.

Watch for “greenwashing.” Many sales sheets promote the “green” aspects of products. Make sure these claims are backed up by third-party certifications. Standardize purchasing practices to ensure that a compostable product one week will still be in use at a later date.

Reusable food service ware outperforms disposable

Reusable food service ware requires far fewer material resources, uses much less energy, and generates much lower levels of air and water pollutants and less solid waste in its production, use, and disposal than similar disposable products. 

Learn more about food service ware

Measure your progress over time. In 2015, HealthPartners completed 22 waste sorts across the organization. They check for recyclables, organics, and potential non-compliant items in the trash. This is also a great way to check on program success and assess additional opportunities for future waste segregation options. Also, they do periodic spot checks of the waste management areas to ensure that housekeeping is placing the bags in the correct waste containers.


  • In the first year of the program (2015), HealthPartners diverted 88 tons of food waste to livestock feed and composted 18.5 tons – and have since increased their numbers, 95 tons went to livestock and 55 tons were composted in 2021. 
  • Reduced the health systems climate impact
  • In 2015, HealthPartners food diversion programs saved the organization over $8,800 – and $7,894.16 in 2021. 

Food landfill avoidance engages the staff in the sustainability program and helps them understand that sustainability is more than just recycling; it’s an important part of the organization’s holistic, community-based view of health care. Food material management supports the mission to improve health and well-being, in partnership with its members, patients, and community.

From pilot to policy

Since completing the pilot in 2015, HealthPartners has continued to build their organics recycling program while also expanding their efforts to focus on higher tiers of the food recovery hierarchy. At Regions Hospital, they donated 4,882 pounds of healthy food to Second Harvest Heartland in 2021, and since 2019 have been utilizing a food donation app and a commercial-sized vacuum sealer to increase the amount of food donated to people.

Regions also has a “waste watch” program and a Food Management System to help thoroughly evaluate where their food waste is being generated (which recipes/foods). The menu is on a 5-week rotation, so when a menu comes back into the rotation, that data is used to reduce overproduction.

Organics recycling continues to be a priority and they are working to expand both the number of facilities with organics recycling and the types of materials that can be recycled. In addition to their headquarters, new clinics now have full organics collection. At Methodist, they have expanded their collection to include post-consumer, disposable containers. HealthPartners is also composting onsite at a second critical access hospital. 

Finally, HealthPartners recently signed the White House / HHS Health Sector Climate Pledge. Knowing that both the production and disposal of food generate greenhouse gas emissions, they remain motivated to keep doing more.

About HealthPartners

HealthPartners, an integrated health care organization providing health care services and health plan financing and administration was founded in 1957 as a cooperative. It’s the largest consumer-governed nonprofit health care organization in the nation – serving more than 1.2 million medical and dental health plan members nationwide. The care system includes multi-specialty group practice of more than 1,800 physicians. HealthPartners employs over 26,000 people, all working together to deliver the HealthPartners mission.

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