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Changes on the menu

Increasing emphasis on wellness and healthier dietary choices leads to new directions in hospital food service

By Jaimy Lee

Restaurants across the U.S. might serve Wild Alaskan salmon with a side of wheat berries, but at Fletcher Allen Health Care, an academic medical center in Burlington, Vt., the meal is locally sourced and costs only $5.25.

The 419-bed hospital is considered a leader in providing organic, local and sustainable food options to its patients, employees and the wider community it serves. It buys 80% of its beef from farms in Vermont that do not use therapeutic antibiotics. The majority of the eggs it purchases are organic. It works with 70 local farmers and producers. Three years ago, it opened a rooftop garden that grows vegetables for food served in patient rooms, the cafeteria and cafés.

Fletcher Allen isn't the only hospital system or food-service contractor that is starting to address the role of healthy food options at its facilities. Interest in providing healthier has taken off with hundreds of hospitals and one large food-service provider pledging participation in healthy food programs during the past year.

As a result, food service companies and hospitals say the move toward incorporating healthier food options into hospital menus and cafeterias is shaping purchasing practices, food service contracts and business strategies for healthcare providers.

“There's more and more attention being paid to the obesity epidemic, the epidemic of chronic disease and this kind of knowledge that the healthcare sector should be playing a leadership role in this area,” says Michelle Gottlieb, co-coordinator of Health Care Without Harm's healthy food in healthcare program.

Annual spending on food does not make up a large percentage of a typical hospital's total expenses. For example, Fletcher Allen spent about $4.2 million on food in fiscal 2012, compared with the roughly $956 million in total expenses the hospital reported that year.

However, food prices are generally rising about 3% to 5% each year, putting ongoing pressure on budget-conscious hospitals to develop strategies that offset rising costs.

And as reimbursement cuts weigh on financial decisions, some hospitals are re-evaluating whether to outsource food service as they address patient-satisfaction scores, the health of the communities they serve and growing food costs. 

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