Healthier, fresher produce taking root at hospitals
Two Montgomery health care centers join national initiative to serve more locally-grown food
Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
To anyone who has tried to chow down on the soggy vegetables, canned fruit and dry meat that's stereotypically served to patients, staff and visitors, the phrase "hospital food" may sound like an oxymoron.
But a national initiative taking root in Maryland is trying to change all that, to the benefit of hospitals, patients and the farmers who are supplying fresh, local fruits and vegetables, grown without synthetic pesticides or petroleum-derived fertilizer.
Healthy Food in Health Care began in the state two years ago, joining a nationwide effort that encompasses 19 states. An individual hospital can sign on to the initiative with a pledge to work toward incorporating more local and organic food in their menus and environmentally friendly practices in their kitchens.
Seven Maryland hospitals have signed on, including Shady Grove Adventist in Rockville and Washington Adventist in Takoma Park.
"Food produced in an environmentally sound way has a number of benefits," explained Louise Mitchell, sustainable foods coordinator for the University of Maryland School of Nursing, which administers the program. "Food from a local farmer is fresher. It's traveled fewer miles. It also has fewer pesticide residues, and it keeps dollars in local communities, supporting the local economy."
Hospitals are a particularly appropriate setting for local and organic food, as they should serve "food that makes you get better, not just keeps you alive," according to Joan Norman, whose White Hall farm supplies produce for the program.
Hospitals have a special part to play in promoting healthful food, and also are crucial in the food distribution system due to their size and credibility, Mitchell said. For hospitals, buying local and organic food is "a big signal you send to the marketplace," she said.
Shady Grove Adventist and Washington Adventist have a religious and historical connection to serving healthful food. For Seventh Day Adventists, "healthy lifestyle, healthy eating is at the root of the culture," said Diana M. Brande, director of food and nutrition services.
Over the past four months, Brande and Carol Chandler, a registered nurse at Shady Grove Adventist, have worked with Healthy Food in Health Care, bringing in produce from local farmers.
While the two hospitals initially delayed signing the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge, fearing they would be unable to meet its provisions, they joined in August.
The week of Sept. 8-15 kicked off the hospitals' local food awareness programs, Brande said. They served staff side dishes with local produce at every meal, with an option to purchase more. They also provided recipes and a list of local farmers whose products they use.
Still, only a small portion of the Adventist hospitals' food is locally produced, as it's difficult to attain a dependable source for large quantities. Exact figures are not available yet.
"What we can do is supplement our produce order with local produce, and so if it's summer, and they've got lots of yellow and green squash, we can buy it in the local market" Brande said.
The Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda also works in conjunction with Healthy Food in Health Care, according to David Folio, chief of nutritional services.
The program serves milk free of synthetic growth hormones, has switched to reusable cups and has begun recycling grease. In addition, the kitchen uses a number of innovative, energy-saving devices, such as a TurboChef oven that works up to 10 times faster than conventional ovens and plastic airstrip curtains that prevent loss of refrigerator and freezer air.
The Clinical Center has not, however, shifted to locally grown foods because of concerns about patients' diets.
"We have to be very careful about who we buy from. Some patients are immune compromised," Folio said.
In an unaffiliated program, NIH offers local produce at 10 locations on its campus.
Several other hospitals, including Montgomery General in Olney, Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring have expressed interest in Healthy Food in Health Care and are beginning to take the next steps.
"Montgomery General is very much a proponent of recycling and environmental programs," said Kisha Stafford, food service director at the hospital, which provides milk free of synthetic hormones.
Using local and organic food might seem prohibitively expensive, but hospitals report otherwise.
For the Adventist hospitals, "so far it's been budget neutral," said Brande, explaining that buying in season and not having to transport goods thousands of miles keep prices down.
The switch does change the hospitals' purchasing habits. They have to "shift menus to accommodate seasonality," Chandler said. Still, "from the hospital's perspective, it's easy to work with farmers on the cafeteria side."
Nevertheless, on the patient side, hospitals have "fixed menus based on calories and nutrition," Chandler said. Local produce can therefore account for only a portion of the total menu.
That portion could grow, she said. "As more and more farmers are able to provide, there'll be choice."
This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.