Daily News Archive
From March 8, 2006                                                                                                        

Hospitals In Portland Serve Organic Food
(Beyond Pesticides, March 08, 2006)
Hospitals nationwide are beginning to serve organic food in their cafeterias, and hospitals in Oregon are leading the trend, reports the Oregonian. Food-service managers are tweaking cafeterias to look more like restaurants, pushing recyclables and trimming kitchen waste, and looking at ways to make food more healthy by trying to get locally grown and organic foods and hormone- and antibiotic-free milk and meat on their menus. Some are even rethinking the contents of hospital vending machines.

"What I'm hearing is, they are increasingly seeing food as a treatment issue and not necessarily as a cost center," says Scott Exo, executive director of Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization that's working with hospitals to get more local, sustainably grown food into their supply chains.

It's still early in this revolution in Portland -- most of the folks in charge are crafting mission statements and food policies, not plating local, organic salad greens for a daily lunch special -- but hospitals are stepping away from business as usual in the kitchen.

Purchasing plans call for buying more local products, steering clear of pesticides and antibiotics, and reducing or eliminating waste. Some food service-directors are thinking more like restaurateurs, asking how good the food can be, to draw more people in and push profits higher.

Kaiser Permanente -- with billboards brimming with blueberries, and a two-year-old food policy that calls for, among other things, modeling healthful eating habits and buying locally grown, chemical-free food -- is out in front of the pack, at least on paper.

"That's very much a long-term vision," says Sandra Kelly, Kaiser's regional food-service coordinator. "But I think the train's really going down the track."

Despite big plans and wish lists, little has changed so far at Portland's major medical centers. But a 49-bed rural hospital in Oregon is leading the way. At Hermiston's Good Shepherd Medical Center, patients order meals room-service-style, and all the cooking is done from scratch, with fresh, organic and sustainably grown meats and produce. Nancy Gummer, the hospital's nutrition services director for 11 years recently overhauled her menu with more healthful choices, because it was the right thing to do, she says, and because the old way wasn't working. "It was an exercise in futility," she says. "You'd send up trays, bring them back down, and throw it away. People didn't especially like the food."

The 52-year-old registered dietitian says she makes her decisions by asking a few simple questions: "What's the healthiest food I can feed these patients? How can the food we buy contribute to the health of the environment we're living in?" And, Gummer asks, does it taste good?

The answer is in the numbers. She's serving more meals now, around 15 percent more. Patients ask for recipes, and non-patients can, and do, eat here as well, calling in orders and swinging by the hospital to pick them up. Her 26 employees are busier, but happier, she says. Some of the items are more expensive, but she is more accurately able to estimate the amount of food she'll use. A few things are cheaper, such as new take-out containers made of corn and sugar cane, from Biodegradable Food Service in Bend. Folks now have to request disposable dishware if they want it, so they're using less of it.

"What we're discovering is, it's a perception that doing the right thing is more expensive," Gummer says. "It's not a reality. . . . I haven't been a month over budget, on food or anything else."

Even if it were, a hospital comes out ahead, Gummer says. "When you're looking at food costs and health costs, you can't look at, 'How much per pound am I paying?' You have to look at the whole picture. Healthier people use less health-care resources."

Hermiston's model is harder to duplicate in Portland, where hospitals serve thousands, not hundreds, of meals a day. Their suppliers are, so far, unable to offer the local connection many food service managers want. Hospitals typically buy food from large national food distributors, under contracts approved by a Group Purchasing Organization, which pools transactions to keep costs down. The distributor (Portland's big three are US Foodservice, SYSCO Corp. and Food Services of America) carries liability insurance and provides assurances about food safety.

In exchange for getting lots of food delivered on schedule at a low price, hospital kitchens sacrifice flexibility and control: They can ask for Oregon-grown berries and broccoli, or biodegradable coffee cups, but if the distributor doesn't carry them, they can't get them without going outside the contract.

Some are leaning on distributors to pull in different products, others talk of pooling their buying power and finding vendors willing and able to get them local, sustainably grown foods.

"We're hoping it keeps them awake," says Lin Rush, Providence's regional hospitality services director, about pressing suppliers for new products. "If we feel that they're not working hard enough to try to find things for us, we'll go elsewhere."

However attractive buying from a local farmer might seem, it's not always realistic for big institutions. "We're very much at the beginning of this conversation," says Suzanne Briggs, a Portland consultant hired by Kaiser to help with local-food purchasing. "Part of it is, how do we buy from local farmers? How do we get the distributors to support local farmers? How do they design their menus to take advantage of the local produce?"

Even if they could get fresh broccoli and spinach from the farmer down the road, many hospital kitchens -- designed for reheating, not cooking -- aren't set up to handle it. They need refrigerated space to store it, sinks to clean it, counters to chop it and staff to do the work.

Other Portland-area hospitals, such as OHSU, Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center, and Providence and Legacy hospitals are also beginning making steps towards healthier food for the patients and the environment. At OHSU, coffee pots campus-wide brew organic, fair-trade and shade-grown coffee; while at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center, vending machines offer healthy choices.

Portland is hungry for more, says Sandra Kelly of Kaiser's. "I think we have a community that's ready for this. I'm not sure the whole country is ready, but we are in the Northwest."