If you’ve ever wondered how “green” your hospital food is, you’re going to love this great article we came across via our partners at LEAF.

The quality of hospital food has long been mocked as inedible and unappetizing. Critics and reformers suggest that we need to transform hospital food service systems into facilities which provide healthy food options and serve locally grown food. In response to these criticisms, as well as genuine concern for their patients’ well-being, a growing number of hospitals have started to focus more on the healthfulness of the food they serve. Focus group research with hospital patients and long-term care residents demonstrates that connections between food and health care go far beyond basic nutrition. Food provides comfort, pleasure, a sense of routine and socialization as well as nourishment.

Food can also present opportunities for patient education about the influence of diet choices on chronic disease management and overall health. Increasing in popularity across the country, the local food movement has now entered the healthcare sector. As healthcare facilities try to keep up with increasing expectations, they are offering more choices, better-tasting food, a wider variety of cuisines and, most recently, an increase in locally sourced ingredients.

Why going local isn’t as easy as it seems

Unfortunately, there are many factors which prevent hospitals from incorporating local food into their kitchens. Tight budgets, concerns about food safety regulations and limited availability thwart hospital food service managers from buying more from local farmers and producers. As a result, they tend to stick with conventional big food suppliers which offer larger, cheaper and more consistent quantities. The misconception that local food consists primarily of fruits and vegetables is another key obstacle. Local food also includes meat, dairy, eggs and grain products. Since local food is associated with produce, people often believe that there are supply and seasonality issues with all local food. That scenario is not often the case as many products are available year-round. As local food can be the basis for fresher meals and better patient care, researchers say that the obstacles stopping hospitals and long-term care facilities from serving more local food are worth overcoming.

Pesticides in food continue to cause concern

With children more likely to be exposed by inadvertent ingestion of pesticide residues on objects in their environment, there is growing concern over the potential health impacts. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) include pesticides such as DDT, industrial chemicals such as PCBs, and contaminants and by-products such as dioxins and furans.

POPs enter the environment as a result of human activity and bioaccumulate in living organisms. They persist in the environment and have long-term toxic effects. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that POPs can cause significant negative impacts to human health and wildlife. POPs have the ability to move through the food chain to humans. They can be passed on from mother to child across the placenta, and through breast milk. We get a significant amount of our exposure to POPS such as dioxins from food so serving organic food as much as possible makes sense from a health perspective. In addition, there are many important environmental benefits from producing food organically.

Successes in greening food service in health care

In 2012 with funds received from the Broader Public Sector Investment Fund, St. Micheals Hospital in Toronto was able to hire a local-food coordinator and implement a local-food purchasing strategy. The hospital discovered that the food-services budget and amount of workers did not need to be increased and purchasing processes did not need to change. They also discovered that the introduction of local food brought freshness into hospital food. With the term of the grant finished and the local-food coordinator position concluded, the hospital is continuing to push ahead with the local food initiative; 38.5 per cent of food at St. Mike’s is now local, and the number is perceived to be growing. Thanks to funding support from Johnson & Johnson Medical Companies (JJMC) and the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care which provided workshop development and delivery, Canada’s first sustainable health care training workshop was successfully launched recently at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

The first workshop of its kind in Canada, Getting to Green was designed for health care staff and suppliers that embrace sustainability and demonstrate their commitment to achieve long-term results and savings for the health care system. Getting to Green brought together green health care advocates from all areas of the health care sector including housekeeping and food service, engineering and nursing, emergency preparedness and the vendor community, all who share a common concern for environmental stewardship.

Facilitated by Coalition Stewardship Council volunteer Aura Rose, principal of Healthwise Communications of Kelowna (BC), the workshop helped participants better understand the linkages between health and environment; the impact health care facilities have on ecosystems, and created a vision for sustainable healthcare. The workshop began to instill the knowledge and behaviours needed to develop sustainable initiatives required at health care institutions across Canada. With the success of the pilot, the Coalition is now looking forward to offering Getting to Green workshops across Canada.

Environmental impact just as important as going organic

Environmentally-friendly food service not only includes serving organically grown food whenever possible, it also means paying attention to the environmental impact of food preparation and service, and the disposal of food wastes. Food waste forms a significant proportion of a hospital’s waste stream and the cost of wasted food is staggering. In addition to the wasting of water, energy, chemicals, and global warming pollution that goes into producing, packaging, and transporting discarded food, nearly all of the food waste ends up in landfills where it decomposes and releases methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Tips on how to manage hospital waste are provided by Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

These include conducting a waste audit to assess what is being discarded, how much and how it is being disposed. Purchasing products that minimize environmental impacts or green procurement is an important step in managing institutional waste. Sustainability and the environment are issues influencing individual and organizational choices on purchasing, waste management, and energy-saving practices. By adopting healthy food purchasing policies, health care organizations are demonstrating a commitment to treating food and its production and distribution as preventive medicine that protects the health of patients, staff, and communities. As a large consumer of resources, a health care food service department can make a significant difference by supporting and adopting environmentally friendly practices.

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