Report Calls for Healthier Hospital Food
Charged with promoting the health of their patients, hospitals should do more to offer healthier foods, including buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers, according to a new report by Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute and the Center for Food and Justice.
The report, “Farm to Hospital: Promoting Health and Supporting Local Agriculture,” follows in the wake of successful farm-to-school efforts and cites seven case studies in which hospitals across the country have embraced fresh, local food as a healthy alternative to standard food service offerings.
“Hospital food is plagued with a reputation for unappetizing, unappealing, and processed fare with limited nutritional value,” said report co-author Mark Vallianatos, Occidental adjunct professor of urban and environmental policy and UEPI research director. “This reputation has been reinforced with the proliferation of fast food outlets within hospital grounds and sodas and junk food in the vending machines.”
The call for healthier hospital food comes amid troubling trends. Obesity and excess weight are rapidly becoming the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Further, the percentage of children 6 to 11 years old who are overweight more than doubled between the late 1970s and 2000, from 6.5 percent to 15.3 percent, the Journal reported.
“One would expect the nation’s hospitals to model healthy eating as part of their preventive health care strategies,” said report co-author Moira Beery, a UEPI research associate who helps coordinate farm-to-school programs across the country. “Ironically, hospitals themselves sometimes perpetuate the epidemic of poor nutrition in America. This represents an obvious opportunity to expand farm-to-institution connections.”
The report references several successful efforts, including the establishment of farmers’ markets at 10 Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California. It also highlights Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., which buys almost 20 percent of its produce from trainee farmers working the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association farm in nearby Salinas.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Hospitals should work with farmers, other institutions and community groups to overcome logistical barriers to a farm-to-institution approach. Farmer co-ops, farmer registries, and third-party intermediaries can help with transportation, storage, quality control and other practical aspects of local food purchasing.
Hospitals should work with farmers, farmer market associations and community organizations to establish farmers’ markets on hospital grounds, especially in neighborhoods that lack a local market and where fresh food access is a community concern.
Hospitals should reduce the availability of food with limited nutritional value such as sodas and junk food in vending machines, cafeterias and restaurants.
Hospitals with available space for a garden should work with community groups to create an on-site community garden as a resource for the hospital staff and others.
Health care institutions should incorporate promotion of fresh food access directly into nutrition and health counseling programs.
Over the past seven years, the Center for Food and Justice has been a leader in promoting healthy eating, particularly through the farm-to-school movement. In 1997, the center was instrumental in launching a farm-to-school program in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District – a program now found in hundreds of school districts around the country. A UCLA study found that low-income students who participated in farm-to-school salad bar programs increased their daily intake of fruits and vegetables by more than 40 percent.
Backed with a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the center initiated a national farm-to-school program in 2000. A network of partners – led by the Center for Food and Justice and the Community Food Security Coalition, and including a number of school districts, community organizations, universities and farm groups – has made substantial progress in developing new programs.