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healthy food hospital

By Molly Miller and Tom Peterson

Hospitals exist for their community’s health. Americans switching from eating bad food (cause of a much of our bad health) to good food will transform not only our health but also our economy. Healthcare systems are often among the largest institutional food buyers. And each meal for patients, staff and visitors becomes a potential teachable moment. So to promote health, hospitals can start inside their own walls and quickly join forces with healthy food efforts in their communities. Here are a few great starting actions.

1. Host farmer’s markets and CSAs on hospital grounds.

By partnering with existing farmer’s markets and CSAs, hospitals have the potential to make accessing fresh, healthy food easier for patients. When used in tandem with food prescription programs, these on-site options for purchasing healthy food can have a huge impact on the eating habits of patients, members of the surrounding community, and even hospital staff.

2. Partner with mobile food programs to make healthy food more accessible.

Barriers to accessing fresh produce are not limited to cost. For individuals who live in food deserts, or areas where healthy food options are unavailable within a mile radius, one of the largest barriers can be transportation. Partnering with mobile food programs or establishing your own mobile food programs eliminates the need for transportation by delivering healthy food directly to the patient. These programs can be especially impactful for individuals who are homebound or disabled due to chronic conditions. Read more HERE.

3. Support the development of your community’s local food system.

hospital healthy foodEmbrace opportunities to engage with community gardens, urban farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs, and other local food programs to identify mutually beneficial partnerships. Partnering with the local food system to develop Food Prescription programs or negotiate discounts for patients managing chronic diseases has the potential to improve the health of your patient population as well as the health of the local economy.

4. Serve Healthy Food. Sign (and follow) the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge.

By signing the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, your hospital agrees to the establishment of healthier food policies within the institution’s walls. The Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge has three goals, which hospitals can choose to adopt as a whole or in parts:

  • Decrease the amount of meat purchased by 20 percent within three years after signing the pledge.
  • Increase the percentage of healthy beverage purchases by 20 percent annually after signing the pledge OR achieve healthy beverage purchases of 80 percent of total beverage purchases for use throughout the hospital within three years of signing the pledge.
  • Increase the percentage of local and/or sustainable food purchases by 20 percent annually after signing the pledge OR achieve local and/or sustainable food purchases of 15 percent of total food dollar purchases within three years of signing the pledge.

5. Boot fast food from the hospital.

When it comes to serving food, many hospitals ignore the dictum, “first do no harm.” Just one generation ago cigarettes were sold in hospital gift shops and patients could smoke in their rooms. Now “cigarettes are out, but burgers, chicken wings, and cheesy pizza are in at many U.S. hospitals,” says a report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The committee found that of 208 hospitals surveyed at least 20 Chic-fil-A’s, 18 McDonalds and five Wendy’s in hospitals, along with others. This despite findings that “that on days when people eat fast food they consume significantly more calories and saturated fat, which exacerbates obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.”But some hospitals replacing disease-friendly food with health-friendly food are modeling good diets and creating valuable “teachable moments,” especially as they explain to their staff, patients and visitors why they are making the shift. Read more HERE.

healthy hospital food6. Use fruit and vegetable prescription programs to ensure that patients are able to access fresh produce. 

Much like on-site farmer’s markets and CSAs, the utilization of fruit and vegetable prescription programs has the potential to improve patient health outcomes in addition to boosting the local economy and helping to build the local food system. Programs such as Wholesome Wave’s Produce Prescription Program and Detroit’s Fresh Prescription Program have shown promising outcomes in initial evaluations of their programs. Read more HERE.

7. Engage with federal policy makers to promote a sane food policy.

Often among the largest businesses in their districts, health systems can have a significant voice with Congress. They can speak for the health of the people in their communities and urge a shift from subsidizing unhealthy food to investing in healthy food. Learn more from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Current U.S. food policy stacks the deck in favor of junk foods while making healthy foods like fruits and vegetables more expensive. The U.S. government spends billions of dollars subsidizing farmers who grow corn and soybeans, which are used to make unhealthy processed foods. At the same time, government policies put up roadblocks that make it harder for farmers who want to grow the fruits and vegetables we need. In the end, taxpayers wind up paying twice for our unhealthy food system:
once to subsidize junk food, and again to treat diet-related diseases like heart disease and stroke. It’s no wonder that both fiscal conservatives and health professionals are up in arms.
Even as the U.S. government is encouraging us to eat the right stuff, they’re subsidizing the wrong stuff. And it’s killing us.

8. Be a key player in your local Food Policy Council.

2 hospital healthy foodYour hospital can play an important role in helping your community or state have access to healthy food by being active in a Food Policy Council, or FPC. A collective of stakeholders, these bodies educate the public on food issues and help shape state and local food policy. Around 200 communities in the United States have an FPC. Some work in an official advisory capacity for a local or state government, while others are grassroots networks that advocate change.

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s 100-page tool kit, Good Laws, Good Food: Putting Local Policy to Work for our Communities is a thorough overview of the work of the councils. Why Hunger also has helpful FPC work and links.

9. Encourage employees to eat healthy food and maintain healthy weight.

Hospitals are often among the largest employers in their communities. With two-thirds of American adults either obese or overweight, wellness programs can both improve the health of their own employees. (And help the bottom line.) They also model and lead the way for other institutions and businesses in the area the value of healthy employees. Click HERE for a report “Hospitals: Leading the Way in Workplace Wellness.”

10. Create a healthy foods task force in your own hospital.

Explore ways to promote healthier diets with employees, patients, visitors and the community. Find people who share a passion about healthy food and its connection to disease prevention and treatment. Nothing like discovering the assets in your own system and community and then aligning them toward a better food and health future!

Photos: USDA; Gila Brand, Creative Commons; Rootology, Creative Commons.