Hospital Food Gets a Check-Up

I find it ironic that some of the most unhealthy food can be found in a place where people are receiving medical treatment for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. After all, isn’t healthy food an integral part of the healing process? Given the bad reputation that ‘hospital food’ has, there are  substantial opportunities for improvement in quality..

According to a story in NPR, the local and organic food movement is making its way into hospital kitchens around the country. Supporters of the program believe that higher-quality produce combined with fewer servings of meat, will help hospital patients in their recovery process and remind them about the importance of eating well. One of the major barriers to large scale adoption, however, is cost. Many hospitals aren’t sure that they can afford it.

Big medical centers buy food in bulk from large distributors that don’t typically offer organic options. But now that hospitals are giving their menus a makeover, the distributors are taking notice and instituting changes as well. MedAssets, which purchases food for 2,400 hospitals, executed a contract in 2006 with the nation’s largest supplier of organic products. In today’s competitive health care market, patients that ask for healthier and more organic options are more likely to get it, as hospitals try to meet demand.

In 2008, the Muir Medical Center teamed up with Bay Area hospitals to conduct a trial to cut down on the amount of beef, pork and poultry served to patients and staff. Amongst other notable results, the trial concluded that hospitals were able to reduce meat and poultry purchases by 28 percent, saving $400,000 in costs. The savings could mean purchasing more sustainably raised meats, which have less cholesterol and more vitamins than traditionally produced meat.

Some hospitals are looking to Kaiser Permanente of Northern California as a model. They started hosting in-hospital farmers markets back in 2003 and in 2006 began partnering with small, local farms to provide patients with organic fruits and vegetables. To offset the higher costs of these fresher foods, Kaiser cut food production costs in other areas. Now, for example, patients don’t see a dessert on their tray, unless specially requested.

Nearly 250 nationwide hospitals have also signed a pledge promoted by Health Care Without Harm, to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, reduce processed foods, remove trans fats and provide hormone-free milk and organic produce when possible. A 2008 survey of hospitals participating in this “Health through Balanced Menus Challenge” showed that 72% were buying local produce, 81% had switched to rBGH-free milk and 44% were switching to antibiotic and hormone free meats.

Although the meals eaten during a patient’s hospital stay won’t substantially change their health, since it requires a long term dietary change, it is a reminder that what you eat is important for good health.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.

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