By Kristie Middleton
Hospital chefs, nutritionists and directors of food services gathered in Seattle this week for FoodMed, the 4th International Conference on Healthy Food in Healthcare. Organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Health Care Without Harm with support from Morrison Food Service Management, FoodMed’s primary mission is to help participants bring more sustainable, humane and nutritious food to their health care facilities. For its part, The Humane Society of the United States presented on improving animal welfare in the health care food supply chain through humane-minded purchasing practices like switching to cage-free eggs.
Over the last few years, there’s been a revolution in health care dining. In some places, chefs are transforming hospital fare to feature high-quality, more humane, healthful choices. Some institutions allow patients to order from menus as they would in a fine hotel.
While some facilities have come under fire for having fast food restaurants in their lobbies, others are pioneering a new sustainable food movement in healthcare. From purchasing local, organic produce to using dairy products free of growth hormones, switching to products associated with more humane practices like cage-free eggs to reducing the amount of meat they serve, many healthcare institutions are considering ways they can ensure the healthfulness, humaneness and environmental sustainability of the foods they’re serving.
Health care food service is a huge market in the United States worth $12 billion a year, according to Lena Brook with PSR. Hospitals not only spend a lot on food, but they’re in a unique and powerful position to exert leadership and help patients and their community learn how to safeguard their own health while being better stewards to animals and the environment.
Many facilities are taking that responsibility seriously. Brook told her panel about the Balanced Menus Challenge that 40 hospitals have undertaken to date. It’s a systematic approach to reducing the amount of meat served in hospitals and a pathway to serving the healthiest, most sustainably-produced food available. She explained that 98 percent of beef, pork, chicken and increasingly fish come from factory farms, known in the industry as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Farm animals are individuals with personalities, preferences and the capacity to suffer, but today’s industrial agricultural businesses often treat them like inanimate units on a production line. Undercover investigations have revealed flagrant abuses of animals on factory farms; sadly, many of these cruelties are standard. On typical pig breeding operations, for example, sows are confined in crates barely larger than the animals’ own bodies for virtually their entire lives. Unable to even turn around, these sensitive, intelligent animals experience tremendous physical and psychological suffering.
Holly Emmons, the food service manager for Union Hospital in Maryland, encouraged attendees to begin their journeys of bringing more healthful and sustainable food to their facilities. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” she reminded the audience.
Emmons’ hospital was the first in Maryland to join the Balanced Menu Challenge two years ago. Since then, Emmons has exceeded the campaign’s goals by participating in Meatless Monday and reducing portion size and buying only eggs from cage-free sources and beef from a local pasture-based farm. By the end of the year, the hospital will have switched its entire poultry purchases to a local family farm.
For other health care facilities, the journey is just beginning, but it’s taking those first steps that matters.
Kristie Middleton is the Manager of Corporate Outreach for Farm Animal Protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow her on Twitter.