The health sector is one of the biggest buyers and suppliers of food, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And with that purchasing power comes enormous potential to support more localized and sustainable food systems.
Public health professionals increasingly agree that hospitals should serve meals modeled after healthier diets. And as the food-as-medicine movement grows, there is a growing understanding that nutrition and the treatment and prevention of disease are intertwined.
The cost of sourcing healthy, local and sustainably grown food is often the biggest hurdle for hospitals with limited budgets. But health system leaders are pushing for reform in the quality and supply of hospital foods and finding innovative ways to make these foods more accessible.
“I think the reason is that we’ve reached a tipping point,” Stacia Clinton, program manager for Health Care Without Harm, told Food Tank. Clinton believes hospitals are seeing a shift in the “culture of value” with the food they serve, investing in the long-term health of patients, the wealth of the local community and contributing to the transformation of food systems.
While some individual hospitals, such as St. Lukes in Pennsylvania, build on-site farms to supply their plant-based menus, there are also initiatives linking hospitals with local farmers and growers through sourcing practices.
Here are 14 initiatives highlighting the root cause of health risks and pushing for local and regional foods on hospital menus.
1. Community Alliance with Family Farmers, USA
Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) works to build sustainable food and agricultural systems in California through advocacy and programs. Their Farm to Cafeteria program helps schools, hospitals and universities across the state bring more local food to consumers. They do this by providing technical assistance and marketing support to farmers, vendors and foodservice buyers. CAFF believes that buying institutional foodservice can provide an anchor for farmers and local communities.
2. From Farm to Institution New York State, USA
From Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) allows New York institutions, such as hospitals, to spend 25% of their food budget on locally grown produce. The initiative, led by the American Farmland Trust, makes recommendations to food and health system stakeholders to increase the public purchase of food on New York farms. FINYS also trains and supports institutions that increase their purchases of local foods, while campaigning for institutions to receive public funding to purchase New York-grown foods.
3. From farm to institution New England, USA
Farm to Institution New England is a network of public and private nonprofits working to increase the amount of fresh, local food served in public institutions across the region. Their New England Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) program aims to improve food in healthcare facilities while supporting New England farmers and protecting the environment. The program builds on resources provided by the National HFHC Health Program and since its inception has expanded to seven state task forces active in the region.
4. Food for Life Served Here, UK
The Food for Life Served Here (FFLSH) initiative rewards caterers who use healthy ingredients and local produce in institutional settings, such as hospitals. The FFLSH accredits establishments whose meals meet criteria developed by the Soil Association and food industry experts. The Soil Association also works with institutions to improve sourcing practices, providing training and support to help them achieve their bronze, silver or gold awards. Their end goal is to ensure that the food served is traceable back to local farms and with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind.
5. Food to Overcome Outcome Disparities, United States
The Food to Overcome Outcome Disparities (FOOD) program aims to alleviate food insecurity among cancer patients. Since 2011, the program has distributed more than 300,000 meals to 4,000 patients and their families. The FOOD program operates 13 food pantries located in clinics across New York’s five boroughs. They partner with a number of organizations to secure fresh fruits and vegetables, including Green Bronx Machine and GrowNYC.
6. Healthy Eating in Healthcare, USA
Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) helps more than 1,000 hospitals across North America implement an environmental nutrition framework for the foods they purchase and serve in their restaurants. Established by Healthcare Without Harm (HCWH), HFHC promotes an environmentally sustainable food system, prioritizing local foods, reducing and improving meat quality, and supporting human dignity and justice. Hospitals can also sign the HFHC Pledge to demonstrate their commitment to food sustainability in healthcare and promote the consumption of healthy foods as a preventive measure.
7. Katalog živil (The Food Catalog), Slovenia
Katalog živil is a food procurement website for all public institutions in Slovenia, facilitating the purchase of locally produced food. Created by the Slovenian Ministry of Public Administration, the aim of the tool is to improve the quality of food served in institutions, such as hospitals, thanks to its comprehensive database. The process allows for greater transparency in food sourcing, allowing hospitals to assess the nutritional value of foods, as well as the location of the producer and certifications such as organic farming. Likewise, the site has made local food producers more identifiable to institutions, thus facilitating communication between suppliers and buyers.
8. Local foods in health care settings, Canada
The Local Food for Health Care Facilities initiative aims to increase the amount of Ontario-produced food served in health care facilities. Part of a larger effort to incorporate local food into broader public sector dining, its pilot project in 2012 was funded by the Greenbelt Fund and the Government of Ontario. The project aimed to assist three health care facilities in the early stages of sourcing from local producers. Once completed, participating facilities remained in the project (Cedarwood Village, Norfolk General Hospital and Nursing, and Norview Lodge) and maintained their partnerships with Ontario growers, with the goal of increasing their local purchases year over year.
9. Food Circular Economy Model for French HospitalsFrance
The Circular Food Economy Model for French Hospitals (MECAHF) is a project demonstrating how a circular food economy could work in hospital catering. Running from 2018 to 2021, the project aimed to reduce food waste through the Center Hospitalier de Niort (CH Niort) supply chain (from supply to disposal) and to reinvest the savings in the purchase of local and organic products. Developed by HCWH Europe in collaboration with CH Niort, MECAHF has reduced food waste by 20% and increased sustainable food sourcing by at least 10% in three years.
10. Northeast Organic Farming Association, USA
The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is a coalition of seven state chapters that advocates and educates about organic and sustainable agriculture. Some state chapters, including Vermont, are working to promote consistent access to affordable, locally grown food for institutions. They aim to build relationships with local farmers, share best practices with network organizations and increase demand for local and organic food.
11. Fed by New England, USA
Nourished by New England (NNE), which began as a two-year program, has connected more than 40 healthcare facilities with 19 farmers and food businesses, as well as dozens of community partners across New England . Developed by HCWH, the program has enabled participating hospitals to spend more than US$5 million on local, seasonal foods from New England farmers and fishers. Although the program ended in 2020, it laid the foundation for new partnerships between New England hospitals and farmers, enabling small and medium producers to serve institutional customers.
12. Feeding Healthcare, Canada
An initiative of the McConnell Foundation and Food Secure Canada, Nourish Healthcare aims to prioritize individual and planetary well-being with the food served in hospitals. The organization believes in using hospital foods to promote and model healthy diets to patients and staff. They worked with 26 innovators in hospitals, health centers and long-term care facilities across Canada to make menus more healthy, local, sustainable, culturally appropriate and delicious. In the long term, the organization seeks to influence policies that support food for health initiatives, bridging the gap between the food system and the health system.
13. ÖkoKauf Wien (Eco-Buy Vienna), Austria
ÖkoKauf Wien (OKW) is a program created by the City of Vienna ensuring that 30% of all food served in public cafeterias in the city is organic, seasonal and locally sourced. As Vienna’s green public procurement plan, OKW engages with institutions to achieve the city’s sustainability goals. For example, the Vienna Hospital Association (Wiener Krankenanstaltenverbund, KAV), a group of 11 hospitals, serves meals with mostly local products and favors foods rich in vitamins. The group collectively serves 30,000 meals a day and, thanks to OKW, 32% of the food served is organic.
14. Food acquisition program (Food Purchase Program), Brazil
As part of Brazil’s zero hunger strategy, Food acquisition program (PAA) was established in 2003 to increase access to food and support family farmers and rural entrepreneurs. The program aims to boost rural economies with an institutional food supply program, giving small farmers contracts to supply public institutions, including hospitals. Brazil’s PAA also promotes more nutritious and seasonal diets with fresher ingredients due to the shorter supply chain.
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Photo courtesy of Luisa Brimble, Unsplash