Employees with the Surplus Project at Rush Oak Park Hospital. | WILLIAM CAMARGO/Staff Photographer

Rush Oak Park Hospital has been sending some of its surplus food, a minimum of 100 meals a week, to the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry since the middle of March through a new program called The Surplus Project.

A press release from Rush Oak Park Hospital said, “For the first time we are working to rescue leftover food from cafeterias to repurpose into individual meals for food pantry clients. Food is Medicine: The Surplus Project crafts a collaboration to improve community health.” 

Because health and safety codes require that surplus cooked food to be served within 24 hours and because the OPRF Food Pantry at First United Church is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the pantry picks up food from the hospital on Tuesday and Friday evenings. 

Jennifer Grenier, who oversees the program at the hospital, said that the minimum number of meals that have been packaged and picked up so far is 55 and that one evening the total was 110.

The idea for The Surplus Project arose from Grenier’s participation in Dominican University’s Community Leadership Program which seeks to develop up-and-coming leaders nominated by CEOs in this area. 

Grenier’s team includes Beth Klein from the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry; Jennifer Gawlik, who is a social worker with Thrive Counseling Center; Tod Altenburg, who is the Chief School Business Official at OPRF High School; and Joy Wright from the Oak Park River Forest Day Nursery.

Klein’s role in the program is obvious since she works at the food pantry. Altenburg works on the finances. Wright handles the communications, and Gawlik is reaching out to West Suburban and MacNeal hospitals as potential partners in the program 

The team first identified food insecurity as the target issue they would address in their course project. 

“In Oak Park alone,” said Grenier, “it is estimated that over 6,000 individuals are food insecure. Adults experiencing food insecurity are at greater risk of developing hypertension, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes.”

Grenier said the people served at the OPRF Food Pantry are not homeless.

“They are every day Joes, some of whom might be working in the kitchen or in housekeeping at my hospital,” Greiner said. “So one day your roof gets a hole in it. Do you feed your children or fix the roof? I saw some of our patients were at food pantry. They are living paycheck to paycheck.”

After exploring the possibility of obtaining surplus food from restaurants and realizing that the approach was not practical, the team decided to focus on Rush Oak Park Hospital as their first step. 

Grenier then contacted Darla Vollrath, the director of the hospital kitchen, and learned that the hospital was already composting an average of 10 large containers of organic material a week and doing some of the laundry for Housing Forward, formerly PADS. 

What shifted the program into high gear was a face-to-face meeting with the kitchen staff and Grenier. The kitchen staff not only bought into the program in a big way but also, as an unintended consequence, felt like they became more a part of the hospital community.

One of the kitchen staff said, “Thank you for doing this. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I know what it’s like to not have money or food. It breaks my heart to see how much food we throw away.”

The National Resources Defense Council confirmed with statistics what the kitchen worker had observed anecdotally. According to their website, 40 percent of the food in the U.S. goes uneaten. 

“This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills,” the website states. “Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more that 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”

Bruce Elegant, the CEO at Rush Oak Park Hospital, emphasized the connection between food security and health care saying, “By being a part of the Surplus Program and similar outreach efforts, Rush Oak Park Hospital continues to fulfill one if its missions of providing the best health care for the individuals and diverse communities we serve through community partnerships. 

“In addition to providing food for clients at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, ROPH nurses and nursing assistants perform health screenings and distribute health care information throughout our service area.”

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