June 30, 2014

By Sapna Thottathil, PhD, Program Associate

Palomar Health is an 800 bed, three hospital health system located in San Diego County, California that has been reducing the amount of meat on its menus and tracking its progress for the past three years. To date, Palomar Health’s downtown campus has reduced the pounds of meat it serves per meal by 19 percent.

“But what we found was that even though we had reduced the amount of meat we were buying and preparing, rising prices – especially for beef at a 17 percent cost increase in this three year period – had eliminated the savings we had planned to use to purchase more sustainably-raised meats,” shares Barbara Hamilton, Sustainability Manager at Palomar Health.

Given that the system prepares over two million meals annually, Palomar Health has to employ several creative strategies to find cost savings. These include plant-based and seasonal menu planning that are changed according to the availability of fresh vegetables and fruits, along with more appropriate portion sizes. Says Hamilton, “weekly menus are planned with the flexibility to use seasonal produce for best flavor and price…Pomerado Hospital café increased sales by 39 percent from September to December 2013….Some staff [are ordering] an extra serving to take home for dinner!”

Marketing has been an additional strategy Palomar Health System has pursued to increase sales, and it sends out emails and newsletters, and puts up signs around the cafeterias to advertise its sustainable food offerings. “Marketing is so important; it could make or break your programs,” comments Hamilton. It is also important to engage food service staff, Hamilton points out: “It gives them greater buy-in to see good sales data.” Palomar Health also provides tastings so that staff can see the food and then talk about the meals being served and ingredients to customers.

Ultimately, “these [meat] issues are too big for us to roll out on our own,” admits Hamilton. As such, through Health Care Without Harm, Palomar Health is working with hospital teams in the San Diego area and throughout California to aggregate demand for sustainable meat and is now scheduled to purchase grass-fed, Animal Welfare Approved beef from Estancia at a reduced cost over the summer. To learn more about hospitals buying Estancia beef in California, read our recent blog from Health Care Without Harm “One Year Later: Hospitals move from ideals to action on “antibiotic-free” meat.”

This blog post was originally published in The Healthy Food in Health Care June newsletter, available here.