October 31, 2018

Appetite for sustainable food: Making the climate connection

When we think about ways to combat climate change, food may not immediately spring to mind. However, the production, processing, packaging, distribution, consumption and waste of food contribute to our overall carbon footprint. We recently chatted with Skip Skivington, leader of Kaiser Permanente’s National Food Strategy Committee and vice president of Health Care Continuity Management and Support Services, about how Kaiser Permanente is engaging in sustainable food practices.

Can you explain the connections between climate change and food production/consumption?

Climate change is having a direct impact on food production. As the world’s population increases toward the predicted 10 billion by mid-century, the increased need for food is straining the planet’s ability to produce it. For example, more water will be needed to increase the food supply, but we are experiencing fresh water shortages, so producers will be unable to keep up with projected food demands.

By 2025, Kaiser Permanente aims to buy all of its food locally or from farms and producers that use sustainable practices. How does this goal fit into the organization’s larger environmental goals?

Our food goal is an important part of Kaiser Permanente’s set of broad environmental goals. Our environmental stewardship officer and our environmental stewardship council are focused on a few key areas. For instance, our chief executive officer recently announced that Kaiser Permanente aims to be carbon neutral by the year 2020.

The initial purchase of sustainable items can be expensive, but we have seen cost reductions occur when we buy in larger quantities. We saw that firsthand in the past with Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to purchase sustainable chicken, and by that I mean chicken that is antibiotic-free, hormone-free and contains no artificial additives. Now, the prices for sustainable chicken are often lower than traditional chicken prices. This is just one example of how our overall green efforts save us money.

What is Kaiser Permanente doing in medical settings and elsewhere to work toward this goal? How are our members, employees and others being encouraged to help us meet our goals?

man and woman selecting fresh vegetables at an open market
There are more than 50 farmers markets at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics across the country.

There are several grassroots efforts in place to help achieve this aggressive goal. We support more than 55 farmers markets, which bring local growers directly onto our medical center campuses. A number of our physicians are focusing on food as medicine and informing their patients about how eating a diet that includes a wide array of fresh, whole foods can help prevent health conditions such as elevated blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In fact, some of our medical centers have undertaken a program they call Plant Power Challenge, which encourages the participants with fun, easy and quick ways to prepare plant-based meals.

What drives your personal connection to environmental stewardship efforts, and sustainable food in particular?

I feel a deeply personal connection to this effort as the leader of Kaiser Permanente’s National Food Strategy Committee and having executive responsibility for our nutritional programs. Perhaps even more importantly, my role as a father, grandfather and world citizen gives me the strong emotional connection that motivates me to work even harder to move us to become a completely sustainable food purchaser.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about in this area of sustainable food and health care?

We are on a sustainability journey and want to meet patients where they are, ultimately doing things that make a difference in their lives, in their family’s life, and in the community. I am most excited about the momentum I feel. The millennial generation is totally behind this approach in a big way. Their children will push all of us to do more to not just eat healthier, but to also help us preserve our planet and our way of life.