The next time that you order food in a hospital, you may not recognize where you are. To the welcome surprise of patients, families, and staff, hospitals today are serving up dishes on par with those of a modern restaurant and a long way from the standard fare of years past: instant mashed potatoes, rubber chicken, and canned fruit cocktail. Mirroring national trends, the food culture of hospitals is rapidly moving toward healthy and sustainable foods grown or raised in an ecologically and ethically responsible manner. More than ever before, hospital food not only looks and tastes gourmet; it is also promoting health and protecting the environment.
Best Practices in Health Care Food and Services
The food and drink purchasing power of the health sector is big business, to the tune of about $12 billion per year. Through sustainable purchasing and by offering healthier food options to patients, staff, and the community, health care institutions can model healthy eating choices and behaviors. Recently, the Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy and Health Care Without Harm released a series of infographics that highlight three ways in which health organizations can transform the food system. These tools exemplify best practices in health care settings throughout the country. They are meant to be shared and used as discussion points for other systems looking to join the movement toward providing more nutritious foods in hospitals and to play a role in creating healthier communities.
Sustainable food is a powerful public health tool, and health care systems are using their might to demand that their food suppliers use fewer chemicals and fresher foods. By reducing the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and increasing hormone-free dairy, locally grown food benefits the community and the environment. For example, nearly 50% of the fruits and vegetables served on Kaiser Permanente’s patient menus per year are sustainably produced and locally grown. Some of this fresh produce in the San Francisco Bay Area comes from the Farm Fresh Healthcare Project, in which 10 family farms have provided 84,000 pounds of local and organic food to six area hospitals. Health care systems in other states have taken different steps to create healthier hospital menus, such as Emory Healthcare in Georgia, where all milk and yogurt sold in cafeterias is free of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. This synthetic hormone increases the likelihood of udder infections and other health issues that might cause farmers to use antibiotics, which in turn can contribute to human antibiotic resistance. Similarly, at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont, more than 42% of food and beverage purchases were sustainable, and 35% of meat and poultry purchases were raised without antibiotics. These initiatives and others play an important role in reducing air and water pollution, foodborne pathogens, and climate change emissions while strengthening rural communities.
Inpatient meals, cafeteria menus, and vending machine offerings are being revamped with criteria focused on lowering fat, sodium, and sugar. Health Care Without Harm is leading an initiative that commits more than 1,000 hospitals to purchasing and serving more fresh, healthy food. The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland has eliminated all sodas from the facility. Vanguard Health’s four Chicago-area hospitals phased out all sugar-sweetened beverages from their facilities as part of the implementation of Cook County’s Rethink Your Drink program. Kaiser Permanente restocked 1,000 of its vending machines with 75% healthy options. High-sodium, high-sugar, and deep-fried foods are targets for elimination. By reducing or cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages, hospitals can establish new standards in health care food delivery.
Through collaborations with community-based programs, hospital system pioneers are fostering a healthy, regional food system and increased access to healthy food. Where better to help treat the many preventable conditions related to poor diet while also working toward a solution for their root causes? For example, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia teamed up with the food services company Aramark to launch Home Plate, a study designed to combat childhood obesity that teaches low-income parents the skills to cook healthy meals at home. The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics reduced food waste by 40% in 2013 by eliminating less-popular menu items, cutting surplus servings, donating meals to people in need, and composting 77 tons of unused food. In Detroit, an expanding network of health care sites across the city are connecting chronic-disease patients, at-risk pediatric patients, and food-insecure families with local healthy food resources by writing prescriptions for fresh local fruits and vegetables. There are incentives for family farm owners, too. A movement bringing farmers’ markets to hospitals, such as Kaiser Permanente throughout its regions; Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina; and Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, is allowing farmers new marketing opportunities to support local agriculture and food systems. In the face of shrinking numbers of family farmers, these farmers’ markets provide opportunities for direct marketing to community members, allowing the income earned on food sales to stay in the local area and offering the community access to fresh produce that they might not otherwise have.
No single health care organization has implemented all strategies highlighted above, but the message for the health sector is clear: Start where you are and build from there. People are demanding healthier eating alternatives in their community, and they deserve the same or better when they enter a hospital. As more providers and delivery systems join the movement, the health sector will play a pivotal role in revamping the food system in their efforts to improve the health of their community members.