Our food system is broken. From pesticide drift and fertilizer run-off to subsidized commodities that help grow waistlines more than rural livelihoods, it could be argued that it actually harms us more than it feeds us. A variety of individuals across the country, from the First Lady to the owner of your neighborhood corner store, are stepping up to address these problems. One of the biggest players to emerge from the fray, and also one of the least expected, are hospitals.
Hospitals are rarely thought of as places to go out to eat. They are even less likely to be considered a place to grab a meal prepared with sustainably produced food that features local and regional products. Let’s face it, hospital food, from patient trays to cafeteria buffet lines, has a pretty bad rap. Fortunately these entrenched perceptions are beginning to become a thing of the past as hospitals are beginning to place themselves at the fore front of community wellness.
Hospitals are in a unique position to help prevent environmental and food-related health concerns by modeling good nutrition in their institutions and by influencing how food is produced and distributed. Through its food purchasing decisions, the U.S. health care industry can promote health by providing fresh, good tasting and nutritious food choices for patients, staff and the community. And by supportingfood production that is local, humane and protective of the environment and health, health care providers can lead the way in helping redefine healthy food.
In Oregon and SW Washington, the Oregon Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) Project, works with hospitals to improve the health and sustainability of the food they serve. Hospitals in this region spend millions of dollars on food each year. As a project of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and in partnership with Health Care Without Harm’s national HFHC Initiative, Oregon HFHC works to help harness the purchasing power and influence of hospitals to support regional markets for fresh, sustainable food, and to model healthy food choices to the public.
Through the Oregon HFHC Project, hospitals in the region have implemented an astounding number of projects and initiatives at their facilities that promote access to sustainable foods, provide healthier food options, support sustainable food markets and reduce the impact their facilities have on the planet. Eecole Copen, Sustainable Food Projects Coordinator at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland notes, “Hospitals need to be the models of serving truly healthful foods as part of the basic medical approach to healing. As the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge states, a truly healthful food ‘must be defined not only by nutritional quality, but equally by a foodsystem that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable and supportive of human dignity and justice.’”
Hospitals such as OHSU are working hard to incorporate “truly healthful food” into their facilities. Through their local, sustainable purchasing they are giving farmers and ranchers in the region a boost. OHSU buys grass-fed beef produced without added antibiotics or synthetic hormones from Food Alliance certified Carman Ranch in Wallowa, Oregon. The impact of these purchases does not go unnoticed by the local agricultural community, “OHSU has done a great job of buying from a small producer. They have embraced the seasonal component of our grass-fed product by dedicating freezer space for frozen ground beef patties. This is a huge commitment” Cory Carman of Carman Ranch notes.
The relationship between OHSU and Carman Ranch was instrumental for the ranch to succeed in the wholesale market. Because of the large purchasing commitment OHSU made, the ranch became more attractive to distributors unsure of carrying a small producer’s product. Once the OHSU purchasing commitment was in place, regional distributors were more willing to carry the ranch’s beef, improving availability for other institutions and restaurants.
Increasing the amount of third-party certified food products has been central to hospitals efforts to improving the health of the food they serve. Many hospitals now utilize FoodHub (food-hub.org), a web-based tool that links consumers to regional producers. This is a great way for producers who have not worked with hospitals in the past to get introduced to this purchasing sector. A key feature of this resource is the ability to quickly identify sustainable food certifications, such as organic, that hospitals are looking to incorporate into their kitchens. In addition, hospitals are working with existing suppliers and distributors to identify and purchase local, sustainable and third party certified products. Beyond increasing these types of purchases, hospitals are also promoting them in their cafeterias. Legacy Good Samaritan in Portland, for instance, visibly labels the organic ingredients available in their salad bar.
Nancy Gummer, Nutrition Services Manager at Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston, Oregon, also focuses on serving healthful meals that are appetizing, “I want people to feel like they have just done something to make themselves healthier after eating delicious food. I want people to experience the link between health and happiness.” Similar attitudes are found throughout the region as seen in increases in items like organic produce, rBGH-free dairy, vegan and vegetarian options, and food bars that serve sustainable meals meeting dietary guidelines. So far the public has been receptive, a Hermiston community member told Mrs. Gummer, “The food is always so good here and I know it’s good for me.”
More than 10 hospitals in Oregon and SW Washington host farmers markets, farm stands, or community supported agriculture (CSA) drop-offs. Many incorporate food sold at the markets into the meals they serve. Mark Petersen Director of Hospitality Services at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon believes that hospital farmers markets help carry out their charge of health promotion, “[Our] market is very much in line with our mission statement – “To improve the health of those we serve in a spirit of love and compassion”- by making available and encouraging our employees and the community to eat healthy, locally produced, high quality food.” In all instances these hospitals are working to support the health of community members and environment, the regional farm economy, and a sustainable foodsystem.
Hospitals in Oregon and SW Washington are not alone in their efforts. Across the country this same trend continues. Through national Healthy Food in Health Care efforts, more than 350 hospitals have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge (including 13 from Oregon), demonstrating their commitment to supporting a food system that promotes the health of the environment and the individuals that are a part of it. Moving the food system in a more sustainable direction is hard work and we need heavy lifters like hospitals to get the job done. While they may not be the first ones to come to mind, they are very much helping lead the sustainable food movement. Talk with your local hospital about the food they serve – you just might be surprised at how much they’re doing to improve the health of our foodsystem.