UCSF Sustainability Stories

UCSF Medical Center: Integrating Sustainable Food Practices


In September 2009, the University of California added sustainable food service guidelines to its Policy on Sustainable Practices, setting the goal for all campuses to purchase 20 percent of their food from sustainable sources by 2020.

There are many reasons why sustainable food is an important component to a sustainability policy, ranging from the health benefits of eating fresh, unprocessed food to reducing one’s carbon footprint by purchasing local food that uses less energy to transport and process while supporting the local economy.

UCSF is working to integrate sustainable food practices into both the medical center and campus food services by sourcing local, sustainable food, and actively recycling and composting waste.

UCSF’s Commitment to Composting and Recycling

The medical center’s Department of Nutrition and Food Services (NFS) is responsible for serving more than 1,500 patient meals per day, as well as managing the Moffitt Café, its satellite retail outlets in the hospital and catering at two of the five campuses, while Campus Life Services (CLS) has retail food outlets to serve more than 8,500 faculty, staff, students and guests. 

Food services at all campus and medical center locations are committed to reducing their impact on the environment by:

• Reducing long distance transportation of foods by purchasing local food where feasible;
• Increasing support for local and organic farms;
• Reducing waste at the medical center by composting and recycling;
• Increasing customer-facing composting and recycling at retail food service locations;
• Increasing support for local businesses; and
• Reducing pollution from pesticides and other harmful chemicals.

Success Story:  Closing the Loop by Composting and Recycling Patient Food

The medical center started a composting and recycling program in its café in 2008, reducing solid waste by 84 percent. The success of the café program gave the medical center the impetus to expand the program to Patient Food Services (PFS).  The results are summarized in the chart below:
UCSF is the only medical center in the UC system that is composting and recycling patient food waste. In 2009, with the input of staff, a simple system was implemented to efficiently sort the waste from meals into one of three bins:  green for compost, blue for recycling and black for landfill.  “By composting all patient waste food, paper plates, cups, and bowls and recycling all rigid plastics, packaging and waste paper, we reduced landfill food waste in that unit by 87 percent (from 30 bags to 4 bags per day). Before it was all going into the landfill,” explained Jack Henderson, associate director of NFS at the medical center. 

Henderson gives credit to Dan Henroid, sustainability officer at the medical center, director of NFS and co-chair of the Sustainability Steering Committee, for supporting the new program. “Dan’s active support makes it feasible to achieve our sustainability goals,” said Henderson.

“We are doing it to do the right thing,” added Henderson. By diverting waste from the landfill, the program will reduce future landfill fees, decrease greenhouse gases and support the City and County of San Francisco’s compost program, which supplies local farms and vineyards with compost to build healthy soils. UCSF is part of an important closed loop system that transforms food waste into soil that supports the growth of local produce.

Focus on Local, Sustainable Food

The UC Policies on Sustainable Practices (see page 17) broadly defines food as sustainable if it meets one or more of a range of criteria, including locally grown (within 500 miles), USDA organic, cage-free, pasture raised, Seafood Watch Guide “Best Choices” or “Good Alternatives” or “Fair Trade Certified.”
UCSF prefers locally grown food that is harvested within 200 miles of San Francisco. In the summer of 2009, about 47 percent of UCSF’s Medical Center produce purchases came from the 17-county area around San Francisco, supporting Bay Area farmers and reducing UCSF’s carbon footprint.
Another aspect of sustainable food is avoiding natural and synthetic hormones. In 2009, UCSF stopped purchasing yogurt made using milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, also known as rBST), which is given to dairy cows to increase total milk production. UCSF’s yogurt now comes from a local manufacturer that uses milk from cows in central California that have not been treated with rBST. In addition, all liquid milk is from cows not treated with rBST.

What You Can Do

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Shop at a Farmers’ Market: Focus your personal food purchases on local, sustainable food. Consider picking up some of your food at the UCSF farmers’ markets, held weekly at the Parnassus Heights and the Mission Bay.

  • Purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Share: CSA provides in-season, local vegetables (and sometimes fruit, dairy, meat, and more) weekly to your home or nearby drop spot throughout the growing season. You can find the CSA closest to you at EatWellGuide.org or LocalHarvest.org. Or, check out the farms that receive compost from Jepson Prairie Organics, where UCSF’s food waste is transformed into soil.

  • Remember to Recycle and Compost at UCSF Retail Outlets: Do your part to reduce waste by composting and recycling when you eat on campus. Remember to put your compostable items (leftover food, plates, cups and napkins) in the green compost bin.  Clear plastic, bottles and cans go in the blue recycling bin. When in doubt, put items in the trash to avoid contaminating the compost.

To learn more

UC Office of the President:  Sustainable Food Services at UC
Food and Water Watch
Health Care Without Harm
Local Harvest (CSA directory)
Michael Pollan’s website
Seafood Watch Guide

Story: Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact
Photos: Fleischer and NFS