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Kaiser joins hospitals promising healthier food for patients, staff

October 09, 2012|By Melissa Healy
  • Chef Steve Delidow shows off a salad made from organic produce from the garden of the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan. Hospitals across the country have committed to overhaul their offerings.
Chef Steve Delidow shows off a salad made from organic produce from the garden… (Patricia Beck / Detroit…)

Kaiser Permanente will join 17 other hospital systems across the country to give hospital food -- the stuff that arrives on trays, is sold in vending machines and offered in cafeterias -- a nutritional make-over aimed at fighting obesity and putting their stomachs, well, where their mouths are.

Kaiser Permanente, which operates 37 hospitals across California, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, will join other hospital systems in throwing out their deep-fryers, stocking their vending machines almost exclusively with low-calorie drinks and healthier snack foods, and devising new "wellness meals" that could replace overcooked green beans, colored gelatin and white-bread sandwiches with fresh fruit and vegetables and whole-grain offerings.

"We owe it to our patients, our members and our visitors and especially to our physicians, nurses and employees, to help make healthy choices easy," said Loel Solomon, national director of community health initiatives and evaluation at Kaiser Permanente. "We need to help create a tipping point, where healthy food is available and convenient."

The initiative was organized by the Partnership for a Healthier America, an organization founded in 2010 and dedicated to fighting child obesity in the United States. It works independently but in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign.

Physicians, who routinely eat out of vending machines during overnight shifts and urge their outpatients to improve their diets by day, have become increasingly vocal in calling on hospitals to bring their offerings in line with their recommendations.

"We really have to start walking the talk," says Dr. Francine Kaufman, head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Dr. Kaufman said that physicians' warnings about, say, the dangers of swilling sugar-sweetened beverages are undercut when patients leave her office and see those same drinks available in vending machines in her building.

Solomon said that under the new agreement sugar-sweetened beverages will make up no more than 20% of the drinks sold in the cafeterias of participating hospitals. Asked how Kaiser Permanente will implement such restrictions, he noted that Kaiser would seek to use "multiple levers" -- including pricing, limiting access, and health communications (including calorie posting and friendly health reminders).

"We know quite a bit about health communication," Solomon said. "That is a golden opportunity for us."

Solomon said the new initiative will accelerate a process already underway at Kaiser Permanente facilities, many of which have sponsored farmers' markets since 2003 and had already started posting calorie counts of meals. Chefs and food-service workers are "really excited" at the prospect of devising new dishes and incorporating more local produce into their offerings, he added.

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