Hennepin County Medical Center Takes its Green Practices to the Community

Who says charity and philanthropic work don't have anything to do with being green or sustainable? In fact, they have everything to do with this more conscious way of running a business.

Whereas energy, water and waste management might indicate a company's actions toward environmental responsibility, giving back to local communities and staff members plays a major role in the other side of the equation — social responsibility. Many companies don't just consider social consciousness to be part of sustainability — they embrace it wholeheartedly.

That's because giving back has real, sustainable benefits. "It's such a win-win-win because giving back makes the people who are doing it feel good and it's great for employee morale," says Bill Marks, director of food and nutrition services at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. "Bottom line, we're also doing great things for our customers."

While Marks is a humble guy, not immediately rattling off every philanthropic or green thing the hospital does — and it does plenty — Hennepin's strong culture of volunteerism and generosity intersects closely with its other sustainable initiatives in water and waste management. For Hennepin, it's all about developing a well-rounded culture of treating the environment — and people — right, even if hospital management doesn't fully realize it. The line between green, healthy and community-driven initiatives often "gets fuzzy," he notes.

"We just want to do what's right, and it helps us be more connected with our community," says Marks, joking that he and his management team of six often dream up new projects and endeavors benefitting the hospital and Minneapolis at large because they can't sit still.

Marks and the Hennepin team first examine every new endeavor for potential price tags and logistical soundness to ensure the idea has "determining stickability."

Turns out, Hennepin's staff of more than 6,000 is so into volunteerism that, due to their support, Marks is able to donate food and labor to local food banks, community cafés, events and programs feeding adults and children in need with little if any additional costs and resources. While some activities might cross the threshold of requiring too much additional labor, for the most part they don't. And Marks has the hospital's people and culture to thank for that.

"If you have the right team, you don't have to worry about it as much," he says. "I'm always surprised by how many people have such big hearts. You can always find five extra minutes in your day to do something great, right?"

Hennepin runs a diverse foodservice operation. The 455-bed hospital offers patients the option to order meals via its room service operation. The hospital's full-scale servery operates 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and served 1.8 million meals last year. In addition, Hennepin runs coffee shops, a doctor's dining room, catering and other retail operations.

As a result of its volume, Hennepin has the dollars to buy extra food to support charitable endeavors, but it doesn't need to do this. "We can buy 100 pounds of chicken and bags of food from our local food bank, but we get funding for that through donations and then distribute the food through our clinics, though we don't serve it to patients in bed," says Marks.

Hennepin is also one of the first hospitals working with the USDA to offer breakfast and lunch to families in need during the summer, when school is not in session and some children miss out on their daily provided meals. "We're also able to give parents a shopping bag of food to take home," says Marks, who adds that this extra added benefit of the program is also available through funding from the USDA as well as other donors. Last year the hospital served 3,000 meals to hungry children.

And, once a month, through Kids Café, the hospital's chef and a few managers feed dinner to single moms recovering from substance abuse, along with their children. "It's a nice change of pace and really fun for our staff," he says.

Healthy Initiatives

In addition to charitable activities, focusing on healthfulness has a double benefit for both the people and the environment. During the warmer months, Hennepin serves as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) drop center for the staff members that sign up for shares from local, sustainable and organic farmers. By serving as a drop site, Hennepin makes participating in this program convenient for share buyers who work at the hospital. All they have to do is walk into the kitchen, open the cooler, check their names off the order list (to acknowledge receipt of their food) and be on their way. This saves Hennepin associates from traveling to another site once a week to get their goods. Plus, it supports the small farmers who want to sell to as many people in as few trips as they can, thus reducing the cost and emissions due to a more efficient delivery process. Whatever food doesn't get picked up goes straight to the local food bank — and the share buyers are cool with that, says Marks.

In addition, Hennepin runs its own on-site organic garden — a feat made more impressive given that the hospital is an urban facility set in the middle of Minneapolis' downtown. Using a series of planter boxes measuring eight feet by three feet on one of the hospital building's rooftops, next to the main cafe, Hennepin grows a wide range of herbs and some small vegetables the culinary staff use to supplement their menus. Advertising the use of "homegrown basil," for instance, is a great selling point for customers.

And, very uniquely, Hennepin caters to its large Vietnamese Hmong immigrant population by running another separate garden for growing Hmong-specific herbs and foods that make the culture's cuisine so unique. "We discovered that Hmong women after childbirth will traditionally make their first meal a stewed chicken in a combination of seven different herbs, but here in the U.S. it's very difficult to find those herbs," say Marks. "We decided to grow them for use in meals for the maternity ward and other areas of the hospital serving this group."

In other healthy, people-focused initiatives, several years ago the hospital completely eliminated trans fats from its menus and did some due diligence to switch to healthier products. And while the foodservice department still serves sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), such as soda, it has designed its retail operations to showcase Hennepin's own purified water by moving those displays closer to the door, where customers will see them when they walk in. Marks' team has also added more fresh foods, vegetables and whole grains to patient menus.

Managing Waste and Water

Energy management continues to be a focus, though it's a challenge to zero in on the kitchen's use of energy specifically because of the lack of submetering. However, each time they purchase new equipment they invest in energy-efficient pieces.

Eliminating Styrofoam several years ago proved much easier to do, as with collecting kitchen scraps, consumer food waste and paper using separate bins. Surprisingly, the composting program (implemented about four years ago) has had another hidden benefit beyond reducing hauling costs; it has also led to a reduction of between 1 million and 1.5 million gallons of water use per year because organic matter is collected rather than flushed down the drain via disposers. "Financially it might not matter because water is inexpensive here, but environmentally it's a huge benefit," he says.

Marks says facilities managers have also noted tax breaks for composting rather than requiring extra landfill hauling, which has also reduced sewage costs by a significant amount. In Minneapolis, those costs are determined by a measure of the organic particulates in the waste and disposer water. Earning a grant for the $20,000 composting dumpster out back also made the program worth implementing. And again, it's about doing the right thing. "We have two choices — run the waste down the disposal or compost it, but by composting it, I'm essentially recycling it." Measurements show the hospital saves about 70 to 80 tons of organic waste a year.

In the end, "going green" comes down to choices like these. Organizations that choose to do the right thing — to benefit not just the environment, but their people too — double up on the profit-, morale- and culture-driving perks that come with the territory.


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