2019 health care food trends

From serving plant-forward menus to growing gardens, more and more hospitals are supporting healthy food choices, bolstering greater food access, and elevating the connection between dietary patterns and health — for people and the planet.

Plant-forward is here to stay

Hospitals throughout the nation are serving less meat and a plethora of gourmet plant-forward meals that would be could be found in the menu at a high-end, trendy restaurant. As Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York discovered, this strategy satisfies customer demand while meeting patient health and environmental goals. They are not alone. Fifty-eight percent of facilities in our network reduced the amount of meat they purchased for cafeteria and patient service, according to data from the most recent Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards.

“We introduced more plant-forward offerings in response to growing consumer demands,” says Veronica McLymont, the facility’s food and nutrition services director. “Consumers have become more educated and connected to the food they eat. More people are paying attention to nutrition guidelines, embracing the idea of ‘food as medicine’ and paying specific attention to what they eat.”

Vegetarian Thai Massaman curry (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center)

Due to this growing consumer interest, all of the highest-ranked hospitals in the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards network that are focused on food service sustainability are substituting meat with whole, plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and soy, as well as offering more vegetarian and vegan dishes on their menus, while 70% have changed their cafeteria layouts in order to highlight salad bars or plant-based options.

McLymont reports positive results since expanding their facility’s plant-forward meal offerings and shifting purchasing practices. For example, year-to-date, they have sold 145,000 salad bar entrees, compared to 118,100 for the same time period last year. This is an 18.5% increase in sales for one of the most highly trafficked areas of the Memorial Hospital cafeteria.

“Meat prices are rising and expected to continue rising. Decreasing meat usage, as well as purchases, could save your organization’s dining operation money and allow space in the menu to introduce meat-free options.”

— Veronica McLymont, food and nutrition services director

“Before you begin, look at what types of plant-based options you already have on your menu and build on that,” McLymont adds. She also advocates a collaborative approach, encouraging her team and other hospital staff to test recipes and offer feedback.

Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth offer opportunities for facilities to explore new flavors, jumpstart a new food culture at their facility, and give chefs and food service teams a chance to showcase their creativity.

  • The Health Care Culinary Contest, for example, is taking place again this year. Health Care Without Harm has teamed up with Menus of Change, an initiative of The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to judge recipe applicants and crown a winner to be honored at the 2020 CleanMed conference in Orlando. This year, we’re building off the growing popularity of plant-forward meal options. The contest closes Nov. 30.
  • The Cool Food Pledge is a new platform to help hospitals offer diners more of what they want while slashing food-related greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge is a cross-sector initiative championed by the World Resources Institute. Health care is leading the pack with 30 facilities signed on so far to reduce their emissions from food purchasing.

As a Cool Food Pledge signatory and industry leader in implementing meat reduction strategies, Memorial Sloan Kettering is showing how hospital food can be better for people and the planet.

“Serving less meat is one of the ways we can work to align with our priorities to be good environmental and social stewards,” says McLymont.


Tending gardens, building community, creating health

More and more, hospitals are creating programs designed to simultaneously support healthy food choices, bolster greater food access, and elevate the connection between dietary patterns and health — for people and the planet. These programs complement and compound one another, creating greater community impacts.

Across our network, hospitals are increasingly taking this holistic approach. In a review of data shared through our Environmental Excellence Awards, this trend also emerged. Circles of Excellence awards honor the top ten scoring facilities across ten areas of environmental performance, one of which is food. Among the hospitals recognized in the Circles of Excellence (related to food), there was consistent reporting on engagement in two or more programs focused on improving food access by community focused initiatives.

The initiatives hospitals are engaged in include:

  • The purchasing of locally grown and produced food and beverages (79%)
  • The creation of healthy food access programs including hosting of farmers markets (50%) and hosting onsite CSA program for patients, employees, and/or community residents (28%)
  • Utilizing their community benefit programs to promote healthy food access/healthy food systems in their community through grants to the community (12%) and other financial investments (14%)
  • Supporting local food production through off-site community gardens or farms (22%), and growing food on their campuses for their cafeterias and for community members (19%)
  • Connecting their clinical care to their patients food and nutrition needs through fruit and vegetable prescription programs (14%)

Hospitals are working with local producers and businesses to support their financial viability and grow local food system capacity, they are showcasing planet-healthy cuisine that includes less meat and more plants, and they are stepping out into the community to speak to the connections between food, health, and sustainability.

The result of this encompassing approach? Stronger local food systems and more opportunities to improve community health. Two hospitals, Valley Hospital in New Jersey and Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington exemplify the power of holistic food programing.

Garden fresh, Garden State

The Valley Hospital, located in Ridgewood, N.J., a suburb of New York City, cultivates connections between food, health, and the environment through a mix of programs merging food and sustainability initiatives. From serving more plant-based (and less meat) meals to going into the community to encourage discussion on the food-environment connection, the hospital is using its position, resources, and expertise to create a community wide change.

“ Our food program aligns with the hospital’s overall mission in that our aim is to serve, healthy, sustainable foods that are good for both our patients and the planet.” — Dawn Cascio, The Valley Hospital food service director (The Valley Hospital)

Valley serves healthy, sustainable food for the good of people and the planet, recognizing its position as a role model for patients, staff, and the community. Its commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture was influenced by its signing of the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge in 2010, which led to a shift to using only cage-free eggs, antibiotic and hormone-free milk, and fair trade coffee.

Dawn Cascio, food service director, explains, “ Our food program aligns with the hospital’s overall mission in that our aim is to serve, healthy, sustainable foods that are good for both our patients and the planet.”

  • Growing good food — The hospital established an on-site garden in 2012. The garden, run by Chef John Graziano with support from staff and the management team, grows vegetables and herbs used in café specials. The garden initiative includes bees. The hospital works with Bee Bold Apiaries to have on-site hives, supporting pollination on its campus and in the broader community.
  • Making healthy affordable — Through its Valley Fit Club, established in 2018, the hospital encourages healthier choices by employees. Employees receive points for choosing healthy items, and points can be redeemed for additional purchases.
  • Creating community conversation — In collaboration with its local library, Valley hosts an annual film screening and discussion, focused on food, health, and environment. The most recent event screened Eating You Alive, a documentary examining the impact of dietary patterns on health, and was followed by an engaging discussion among the 87 attendees.
  • Plant-forward and proud — In 2012 it began participating in Meatless Monday. Today, the hospital, which served 915,175 meals in 2018, offers daily vegetarian and vegan meals and has created an entire plant-based menu for vegan patients. Its offering of plant-based options has increased from 5% prior to 2010 to 35% in 2019. Menus feature locally sourced ingredients from a CSA program and the hospital’s onsite gardens and cultivators where possible.

With its combination of programs, Valley Health System has become a leader in promoting plant-based nutrition among its 4,000 employees, patients, and the community. On average, 23% of patients and staff are choosing the plant-based options daily. This work drives creativity in the culinary team.

According to Cascio, the hospital’s culinary team is dedicated to this path, “Our culinary team develops new plant-based menu options annually. We look forward to continue exploring and experimenting with new recipes and globally inspired flavors.”

The culinary team is comprised of advocates both inside and outside the kitchen — with hospital leadership, patient services and the food team bringing their experience and expertise together to develop and implement the hospital’s initiatives.

Nourishing the Northwest

Focus on children, impact the community

At Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington, research is shining new light on the connection between the prevalence of food insecurity among children and families with chronic illness.

In September, their 2019 Community Health Assessment was published. This critical report reflects community feedback and data from across the region. Healthy lifestyles — healthy eating, active living, and food security were identified as community health needs.

The hospital is now investigating how health care organizations, along with other community supports, can respond to hunger and promote food security.

“This aligns with our mission to provide hope, care, and cures to help every child lead the healthiest and most fulfilling life possible, since healthy and fulfilling lives are inextricably linked to nutritious food,” says Lara Sim, community benefit manager.

Seattle Children’s Hospital’s increased purchasing of local and sustainable foods provides fresher, better tasting and healthier food to patients, families and staff. This work is reinforced by endeavours to address food insecurity and healthy food access, implementedby its community health and benefit teams.

  • Screening for hunger — In 2018, Seattle Children’s began screening for food security in six specialty clinics. As part of the screening and intervention pilot, clinics connects families to community-based support for social services.
  • Family pantry — An on-campus food pantry was established, which provides a small supply of nutritious food for families, including fresh food from its on-site garden.
  • Prescribing fruit and vegetables — The hospital provided groceries to 600 inpatient families from February 2018 through July 2019, in partnership with the University District Food Bank. In one year, over 100 families experiencing food insecurity received over 2,000 vouchers to purchase fruits and vegetables through a program at its pediatric primary care clinic.
Seattle Children’s Hospital on-sight organic garden supplies the cafe with local foods and teaches young patients to “eat the rainbow.” (Seattle Children’s)

Growing and serving whole foods

Seattle Children’s food and nutrition education efforts are multifold. The hospital recently participated in a harvest-of-the-month program to highlight the seasonal availability of locally grown foods, educating patients, staff, and visitors on campus. The team from its on-site organic garden hosts summer classes for children and their parents, teaching the skills to start and grow a garden at home (with supplies included), and the benefits and fun of “eating the rainbow” for balanced nutrition.

“A couple of years ago, we designed and built a new commercial kitchen with an entirely whole foods menu. We now use a room service model, with individual meals cooked to order,” Bill Taylor, the hospital’s retail manager, shares, “Its resulted in reduced waste and higher guest satisfaction. We now serve 30% more meals than before the new kitchen opened. “

The hospital also began shifting to antibiotic-free meat purchasing a few years ago, in collaboration with antibiotic stewardship leader, Dr. Scott Weissman and now 69% of meat purchases meet this criteria. An on-site organic garden also produces fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit for the retail cafe.

When it comes to food, Seattle Children’s tries to make everyone feel welcome at the table. Internally, this means collaboration among the dietitians, patients and families to provide nutritious meals that kids love. On the community side, there is a large, multi-disciplinary team that makes this work a reality, including representatives from sustainability, food security, inpatient care and outpatient clinics, social work, external affairs and guest services, legal, nutrition, and grounds maintenance.

“There is so much potential for health systems to innovate in this area, the way many have already done, adds Sim, “We are excited to continue conversations and develop a framework for how health systems can effectively leverage their resources to catalyze and expand the impact of these strategies to improve community health.”

Want to grow a garden at your facility? Practice Greenhealth can help.


Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Valley Hospital, Seattle Children’s, and other Circles of Excellence award winners illustrate how hospitals are assuming new roles in the food system, including producer, funder, and advocate. These new roles complement their long standing work to support local food economies, improve food access, and change behaviors, both within and outside of their walls. Their efforts reflect a commitment to meeting their communities’ diverse health needs and driving transformative change.


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