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Hospital Food Goes Healthy Gourmet


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By Jennifer Larson, contributor 

June 27, 2011 - Hospital food has come a long way. Instead of being the punch line of a joke, the food in many hospitals now more closely resembles the gourmet fare at a popular restaurant. Today, you can order vegan and gluten-free meals at some facilities, while others boast all locally-grown organic produce. Some hospitals have even hired classically trained chefs to oversee the menus.

Healthy Hospital Food
El Camino Hospital in California offers a variety of healthy food options to patients and staff members.

But the overarching emphasis is always providing the healthiest possible food--for both patients and staff.

Hospitals have a responsibility to provide healthy food for both patients and workers, said Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president for human resources and strategic planning for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. It’s the right thing to do so that patients can get well, but it’s also important for the staff to be able to be good role models for patients.

“A lot of health care workers don’t take good care of themselves because they’re so focused on taking care of others,” she said.” If we want the kids to be healthy, we need to be demonstrating it. The kids look up to their physicians and the nurses and the caretakers.”

Fu-Mei Ling, MS, RD, director of nutrition for El Camino Hospital, with facilities in both Los Gatos and Mountain View, Calif., agreed. “We have a moral obligation to lead people to live a healthier lifestyle,” she said.

To that end, some hospitals host farmers’ markets on site to give people easy access to fresh produce. And many hospitals are rethinking their vending machine options and phasing out the soda and candy bars in favor of prepackaged carrot sticks and bottled water. They’re revamping their room service options and remaking their cafeteria menus.

“Our philosophy is real food, all the time,” said Frank Turner, director of culinary wellness for Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan.

Henry Ford West Bloomfield approaches food with the goal of providing high-quality meals with high-quality ingredients that are healthy and tasty, said Turner, a chef with French training. He was hired to work with the hospital’s staff to design healthy, flavorful recipes and to make sure that people have access to delicious fare that is good for their bodies.

So don’t expect to find salty, fried food anywhere within the hospital. Everything is cooked from scratch at the facility. There are no deep-fryers, and the cafeteria serves salmon and black bean burgers instead of greasy meat patties.

“Our goal is to really take health and healing beyond the boundaries of the imagination, and to do so, we believe food is an integral part of that,” said Turner, who hosts cooking classes in the hospital’s demonstration kitchen where people can sample the healthy foods he prepares.

Another increasingly popular trend is the effort by many hospitals to provide more locally-grown or sustainable produce. Twenty-two farmers supply fresh in-season produce for Henry Ford West Bloomfield, which, like many hospitals, now hosts a farmers’ market. St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor in Michigan even launched its own farm.

El Camino Hospital takes advantage of its California location to procure fruits and vegetables from farms in the nearby region of Salinas, California, known as “the salad bowl,” and it procures fresh seafood from the nearby coast, said Ling.

“We try to reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can,” she said.

It’s a trend that’s gaining traction, and it goes beyond just hosting a farmer’s market or buying locally-grown fruits and vegetables. For example, the Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment Initiative is currently conducting a campaign to convince hospitals to go also purchase local sustainable meat and poultry.

Almost 350 facilities, like Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, have signed a “Healthy Food in Health Care” pledge created by the international coalition Health Care Without Harm. They’ve promised to adopt healthy food purchasing policies to support a healthier food system for everyone. (Visit the Health Care Without Harm site for a list of tips for hospitals that want to get started.)

And Simi Valley Hospital in California is one of a growing number of hospitals participating in the Meatless Monday program, which is part of the Healthy Monday initiative associated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Those hospitals have committed to certain behaviors in the effort to end preventable diseases; on Mondays, they make meatless food options available to encourage people to eat less meat.

But it can be challenging to both provide healthy food and satisfy everyone’s demands. Most hospitals who have changed their culinary programs acknowledge they’ve fielded a few complaints from people who miss the not-so-healthy food.

You can’t force people to choose healthy food, but you can provide a variety of options to encourage healthy eating, noted Ling. Her hospital serves a very diverse patient base, so she has worked to make sure the menu reflects that, including various dishes that appeal to various ethnic groups.

“We also want to make sure patients eat,” she said. “If it’s something they can’t eat, it won’t help them.”

One way that hospitals are encouraging their own staff members to eat healthier fare is by making it easier to do so.

For example, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has worked to make healthy food options more visible and accessible in their cafeterias. It’s now very easy to grab a wrapped piece of fruit or a fresh fruit cup because they’re strategically located. And they’ve lowered the prices on the healthier food and raised the prices on other items.

“The key to all this is really making it simple,” noted Matzgkeit. “You’ve got to make it easy for them to eat healthy.”

And it is worth the effort to make purchasing decisions that take into account the health of the entire community, noted Louise Mitchell, the sustainable foods program manager for the Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment.

“Hospitals have a responsibility to be the leading industry sector in promoting health, in promoting things that produce healthier people,” she said.

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