Looking to hitch their food carts to the popular trend of sustainability, a growing number of Southern California medical centers have done away with canned goods and processed foods in their cafeterias and are making meals from scratch from locally sourced ingredients. With the help of a non-profit group that challenges hospitals to make healthy food that's good for patients and the environment, hospitals are greening their cafeterias, emptying vending machines of sugary sodas, starting up farmers markets on-site, and improving their food service programs to include sustainable food practices.

“Once you influence the food in the cafeteria, you influence the food that gets to the patients,” says Jamie Harvie, director of the Sustainable Food program at Health Care Without Harm, the non-profit group that's helping hospitals implement programs to minimize the environmental impact their medical institutions have on the environment.

Catholic Healthcare West Medical Center in Glendale and Kaiser Permanente's Downey Medical Center buy produce from local farmers and serve meals made from scratch. UCLA Medical Center offers vegetarian entrees, made-to-order salads and bison burgers.

Hospital Farmers Markets Promote Health; Credit: Brooke Burton

Hospital Farmers Markets Promote Health; Credit: Brooke Burton

Kaiser's Southern California hospitals host weekly farmers markets on their medical campuses for patients, visitors, and neighbors. Catholic Healthcare West offers discounts and free meal incentives to regulars and staff who reduce hospital waste by using eco-friendly, reusable containers and ceramic mugs whenever they eat at the cafeteria.

According to a recent Johns Hopkins study, hospitals that reduce their meat purchases by twenty percent significantly reduce greenhouse gasses. Health Care Without Harm entices hospital food programs with the promise of saving budgetary dollars to implement simple changes like reducing the size of hamburger patties or offering more vegetarian items.

Since many in-patients are on low-sodium or low-sugar diets, making hospital food that tastes good is a challenge. “We get around that by using lots of herbs and citrus,” says Karen Panchari, Director of Food and Nutrition services at Glendale's Medical Center. “Where we can, we try to get things that taste better so that they won't miss the salt. We use a lot of cumin and spices or marinate in olive oil and onions to beef up the flavor.”

For perhaps the first time, hospital food has become a vehicle for something a bit more political. “We're getting to the point where the medical community is interested in engaging in US Agricultural policy,” says Harvie. “Even the American Medical Association has a resolution that physicians in hospitals need to be advocates for nutritious and sustainable food,” says Harvie. “And [the AMA] is not a terribly liberal organization.”

Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center Farmers' Market at Barnsdall Art Park; 4800 Hollywood Blvd. (between Edgemont St. and Vermont Ave.), Wednesdays, 12 to 6 p.m.

Brooke Burton is also the author of Foodwoolf.com.

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