November 8, 2011

Making great strides in sustainable food for health

Sustainable food — how to grow it, how to purchase it, and how to make it more available and accessible — has become a hot topic in the national media, crystallizing into what many are calling a “food movement.” That movement is a natural fit for health care organizations such as Kaiser Permanente who’ve sought to make the connection between healthy food, healthy people and healthy communities.

Over the past 10 years, Kaiser Permanente has moved to promote sustainable food and agriculture and increase sourcing of healthy, local sustainably produced food in its hospitals, cafeterias and vending machines. The organization now spends approximately 15% of overall food spending on sustainable food across the organization, nearly two times as much sustainable food as most other hospital systems of its size. By the end of year 2015, that number is expected to grow to 20%.

“Kaiser Permanente recognizes that locally grown, sustainably farmed and sustainably processed food is less taxing on the environment and ultimately healthier for those who eat and grow the food,” says Kathy Gerwig, who leads Kaiser Permanente’s Environmental Stewardship program. “We support the development of local and sustainable food systems because it is a matter of public health.”

In partnership with Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition dedicated to implementing ecologically sound and healthy practices in health care, Kaiser Permanente adopted a guideline in 2008 that defines its expectations for sustainable food.

Since then Kaiser Permanente has developed more specific sustainability criteria, within each food category, which align with the Green Guide for Healthcare Food Service Credits, a benchmarking tool for sustainable food in health care. Some examples include: food produced within 250 miles of the Kaiser Permanente facility; produced without pesticides, antibiotics or added hormones; and certified as sustainably produced by a third-party eco-label. Food products must meet at least one of these criteria to be considered sustainable, though preference is given to products which meet multiple criteria for sustainability.

Progress to date

Kaiser Permanente is currently working to promote the increased sourcing and consumption of healthy, sustainable food through a number of different programs. Here are a few of the achievements to date:

  • About 190 tons of the fruits and vegetables (nearly 50% of all fresh produce that Kaiser Permanente purchases) served on patient menus across the organization are sustainably produced.
  • Approximately 6% of fruits and vegetables purchased by Kaiser Permanente are certified organic, as compared to 3% overall consumption of organic in the U.S.
  • Kaiser Permanente has begun to source cage-free shelled eggs that are served within the hospital system; efforts are underway to source all liquid egg products from cage-free chickens as well.
  • All milk and yogurt that is served with patient meals and in our cafeterias and vending machines is free of rBGH, a growth hormone commonly given to cows.
  • All vending machines in Kaiser Permanente-owned facilities feature at least 50% “healthy picks” — foods defined by our dieticians and clinicians as “excellent” choices; that percentage is expected to increase to 75% by the end of 2012. Healthy Picks menu items are also offered in all Kaiser Permanente cafeterias.
  • Kaiser Permanente hosts or sponsors 40 farmers markets at hospitals and medical centers across the country; these markets provide an easy way for visitors and community members to easily access fresh, sustainable, locally sourced fruits and vegetables.
  • Coffee and tea in Kaiser Permanente vending machines is fair trade.
  • Through Community Benefit programs and strategic grantmaking, Kaiser Permanente consistently funds community organizations and public-private partnerships, like California’s FreshWorks fund, that are working to create greater access to fresh, local produce in underserved communities.

“Because of the size of our health care organization, it can be a challenge to find vendors who can provide sustainable goods at the volume that we need,” says Jan Villarante, director of national nutrition services at Kaiser Permanente. “But as farmers and food distributors come to recognize that we are committed to this way of doing business, they are rising to the occasion and looking for ways to meet the demand.”

Making the case for a sustainable food market

Kaiser Permanente continues to be at the forefront of the effort to source more sustainable food within its hospital system. This year, the health care organization joined together with five other hospital systems in the San Francisco Bay Area — UCSF Medical Center, San Francisco VA Medical Center, John Muir Hospitals, St. Joseph Health System in Santa Rosa, and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center — as well as representatives from area food distributing companies in an effort to better create a market for sustainable food. The initiative, termed the Regional Produce Sourcing Project, is funded through Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit and is being led by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

“The best way to increase the supply of really good, healthy, local family-farmed food is for the farmers to be able to transparently see what the demand is,” says Preston Maring, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s long-time advocate for farmers markets and sustainable food. “By making a connection between the farmers and the broader marketplace, in this case the hospital systems, we can make it easier for the small to mid-size local farmer to get his or her produce into the supply chain.”

“Sourcing the sheer volume of what we need is definitely a challenge for our organization,” adds Villarante. “It’s not a barrier, but it’s a challenge. But we remain committed to spending locally and sustainably. It keeps money in the community. It improves our environmental performance. It’s just the right thing to do.”