How Hospitals Are Going Green

Sustainably produced grass-fed meats and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Words to describe a trendy new restaurant hip to the green revolution, right? Well, you may be surprised to learn these words also describe changing standards in the foodservice departments of a handful of hospitals in San Francisco, California. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future recently issued a report on a study called “Balanced Menus,” developed for Physicians for Social Responsibility and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH).

The goal of Balanced Menus is to improve the health of hospital patients, staff and cafeteria customers while reducing environmental burdens by cutting meat purchases by 20% and increasing the amount of sustainably produced animal products purchased. The idea is to offer more vegetarian protein options. Another goal is to serve only grass-fed meat and poultry which are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. HCWH began launching the program across the country in 2009.

Did the program prove effective for these hospitals? The four hospitals in the 6-week pilot program implemented Balanced Menus differently, changing patient menus, cafeteria menus, or both. Study results showed an overall reduction in meat purchasing and greenhouse gas emissions. If continued for long-term, their savings could amount to $400,000 and 1,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually. Hospital administrators are generally pleased with the program and recommend these changes take place over time to best meet the needs of patients and help foodservice staff with the transition.

Why is the program focusing on meat options on hospital menus? For the average person requiring a 2,000-calorie daily diet, the US Department of Agriculture recommends 5.5 oz. of protein-rich foods, both animal- and plant-based, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and beans. In the U.S., industrial food animal production (IFAP) produces almost 9 oz. of protein per person per day just from red meats and chicken alone.

Grass-fed and naturally-raised animal products are higher in some essential nutrients and lower in cholesterol and unhealthy saturated fats. In IFAP, however, huge quantities of animals are kept in close quarters and fed grains like corn, which their digestive systems are not designed for. To promote growth and treat the infections that can arise when not fed their natural diet, industrial animals are given antibiotics at such high levels that the effects are no longer therapeutic, but can actually harmful for people and the environment.

Furthermore, over-administering antibiotics to farm animals can lead to the development of “superbug” bacteria that become resistant to the antibiotics, and can wind up infecting humans. For example, Methicillin-resistant stapholococcus aureus (MRSA) is a strain of bacteria commonly seen in hospital patients after major surgery and those with very weak immune systems, according to the CDC. Between 1974 and 2004, the number of staph infections caused by MRSA increased from 2% to 74%. This can lead to increased healthcare costs, longer hospital stays and possible death from the infections. In fact, the annual number of deaths associated with MRSA infections has surpassed the number of deaths associated with AIDS, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Hospitals are a great place to implement the green food revolution because they are directly affected by the impact of MRSA infections. Plus, doctors and nurses are also in a position to relay disease-prevention messages to patients – people who may be receptive to implement and copy these interventions to improve their overall health.

Finally, hospital food may actually taste better than airplane food.

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