August 25, 2009

Reducing Global Warming through Healthcare Systems Food Purchasing

Our industrialized food system is failing to protect public health.  How food is produced and distributed profoundly affects its nutritional quality, our environment and resources, and the social and economic fabric of rural communities.  Poor nutrition is a risk factor for four of the six leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.  Diet-related diseases contribute as much as $93 billion to the nation’s annual medical bill, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In California, a state-sponsored study in 2000 using data from 1998-1999 estimated the total direct and indirect costs due to physical inactivity, being overweight, and obesity would reach $28 billion by 2005.  Yet rather than investing in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other high fiber foods important for good health, our current food system favors the production of feedlot-raised animal products and highly refined, calorie-dense foods.  It promotes the long-distance travel of food and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, creating environmental pollution, unnecessary waste and associated health problems.

In the next phase of our effort, will focus on the “Balanced Menus” campaign, wherein hospitals will reduce the amount of meat protein served in their cafeterias and on patient trays. Most hospitals purchase substantial quantities of meat annually, typically through large distributors who source from the US commodity beef, pork and poul­try markets. The upfront cost for these products is low, giving a veneer of affordability to serving meat two to three times a day on patient trays and in cafeterias. However, the hidden cost of meat produced and distributed via our industrial agricul­tural system is high. Industrial meat and poultry production relies on the addition of antibiotics (70% of all antibiotics used in this country are given to healthy animals, to promote growth and compensate for stressful growing conditions), arsenic, and hormones as well as crowded conditions that pollute air and water. The ris­ing social costs of antibiotic resistance, air and water pollution, and associated impacts to the health of communities are ulti­mately borne by healthcare systems.

Current Balance Menus Leaders
UCSF Medical Center
John Muir Health System
Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital
San Francisco VA Medical Center

Globally, livestock for meat and dairy production accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than every single car, train, and plane on the planet. Meat production practices also cut to the heart of other health and environmental impacts. U.S. food production relies heavily and wastefully on fossil fuels, and red meat production is particularly energy-inefficient. Nearly 80% of the grains grown in the United States are produced for livestock feed.  Cattle, swine, and their waste also release large quantities of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases far more potent than carbon dioxide. Waste lagoons from concentrated livestock operations also produce significant amounts of methane, a potent climate change gas. Studies suggest that certified organic and grass-fed livestock operations may reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that high-quality pasture can also lower methane emissions from cattle rumination.  Yet, all cows, and sheep naturally produce methane and we know that plant-based diets can be half as energy and emissions-intensive as diets dominated by red meat. According to the United Nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eating meat-free one day per week may be the most important thing an individual can do from a climate change perspective. In fact, in late 2008, the National Health Service in the United Kingdom announced their plan to eliminate meat from hospital menus.

Americans eat three times the amount of meat recommended by the USDA. Hospital food service operations often mirror this trend, offering sizable servings of meat several meals per day. The abundance of meat in our food environment directly and negatively impacts the health of Americans. While food choice is distinctly personal, the healthcare community can help reshape this environment. A reduction in the overall amount of meat served in hospital facilities provides health, social and envi­ronmental benefits that are consistent with prevention-based medical practices. As institutions with considerable buying power, hospitals can demonstrate leadership to the marketplace by reducing the overall quantity of meat and poultry served and through preferential purchasing of sustainably produced meats.

The underlying strategy behind this project is to reduce meat in hospital food service to promote the health and taste benefits of seasonal vegetables and grains, to utilize cost savings to purchase higher-quality and sustainable meat options, to demonstrate the growing demand for alternative meat to producers and distributors, to educate patients, and staff about the climate change, environmental, health, and economic implications of the conventional meat production system and to create demonstrable reductions in the climate and environmental footprint of Bay Area hospitals. Implementing “Balanced Menusstrategies offers cost savings as well as concrete public and environmental health benefits. For example, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, designed a “Balanced Menu” that increases vegetarian options and incorporates the use of local grass-fed beef and free range chicken.  They predict that not only will this menu benefit the health of their patients and the environment, but it will be cost neutral as well.  Despite a 35-50% price increase for the better quality, sustainably raised proteins, the menu overall should net the hospital close to $5,000 per year in savings.

Through this project, Bay Area health care institutions will use their purchas­ing power to expand local markets for sustainable meat and poultry, as well as create public policy support for sustainable production, while at the same time building synergy between food services oper­ations and clinical nutrition efforts. With “Balanced Menus” hospitals will also support local farmers and ranchers that produce sustainable meat and poultry.