You're Going to Need a New Lame Joke: Hospital Food Isn't Awful Anymore

Increasingly, healthcare facilities feature locavore chefs, greenhouses, and even cooking classes.

The Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital outside Detroit recently opened a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse to grow the organic produce it serves to patients, staff and visitors. (John Grybas/Henry Ford Health System)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

At Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital outside Detroit, the sick and their families, as well as hospital employees, dine on nutritious meals made from fresh produce like tomatoes, kale, eggplant, and strawberries. Everything is local…very local. The hospital grows most of its own food in a gleaming new, 1,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse.

That’s not all. On Saturday, the hospital unveiled an educational center where everyone from patients to the public can come to learn about making healthy food choices. Many of the exhibits will be geared toward kids in a state where 12 percent of children under five and 14 percent of nine-to-12-year-olds are considered obese.

“We want to make sure that every single day we have yellow school buses coming here from all over southeast Michigan,” hospital CEO Gerard van Grinsven told the Detroit Free Press. “We want to influence our young ones to start thinking differently about food and what they put in their bodies.”

Maybe healthy, local meals and nutrition advocacy at a hospital don’t sound extraordinary. After all, Henry Ford West Bloomfield is a hospital, charged with promoting health and wellness. But the truth is that many hospitals have traditionally missed the mark when it comes to healthful meals and too often contribute to a harmful industrial food system. But that’s changing, says Michelle Gottlieb from Health Care Without Harm, an organization that works to implement “ecologically sound and healthy alternatives to health care practices that pollute the environment and contribute to disease.”

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In 2006, HCWH took up the issue of food after it observed hospitals shipping their foodstuffs from thousands of miles away—even in high food-producing regions of the country. What started with the signatures of a handful of hospital administrators pledging to begin procuring more healthy and sustainable food has turned into a movement—more than 400 hospitals have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge.

“Hospitals are increasingly being seen as anchor institutions that are needed to support healthier communities and a healthier local economy,” says Gottlieb, the cocoordinator of HCWH’s Healthy Food in Healthcare program. “If we are to solve the epidemic and escalating costs of obesity in American society, hospitals need to be critical partners in redesigning sustainable food systems and modeling the kind of food choices that the rest of us need to adopt.”

Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital signed the pledge and has been implementing preventative medicine and holistic wellness programs for several years. There’s a Demonstration Kitchen on site where a chef teaches classes on subjects like gluten-free baking, hidden calories, and storing and cooking vegetables over the winter.

The greenhouse—believed to be one of the first organic hospital greenhouses in the nation—contains five types of kale, 23 kinds of tomatoes, five varieties of basil, eggplants, squash, hot and sweet peppers, fresh herbs, microgreens and even strawberry plants. A number of classes on topics from organic gardening to hydroponic growing systems will be taught out of the greenhouse. Both the $1 million greenhouse and the adjoining educational center were funded by an anonymous donor.

The move to healthier food in hospitals appears to have reached the tipping point and is gaining momentum. Recently, 11 of the largest, most influential U.S. health systems, comprising over 475 hospitals with more than $20 billion in purchasing power, worked with Health Care Without Harm, the Center for Health Design and Practice Greenhealth to create the Healthier Hospitals Campaign: a campaign to implement a completely new approach to improving environmental health and sustainability in the healthcare sector.

Gottlieb says that over the next three years, 2,000 hospitals in 50 states and the District of Columbia will begin to make changes that let them reduce energy and waste, choose safer and less toxic products, and purchase and serve healthier foods. Program officials will measure the impact on improved patient, worker and community health, as well as each hospital’s success in reducing costs.

Clearly, the end of grey meat and listless Jell-O is within sight. Here's hoping the next generation won't understand their grandparents’ wisecracks about hospital food at all.

What do you think of hospitals’ efforts to improve the safety and quality of the food they serve to staff and patients?

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