Walking the Talk

Health Care Facilities Become Healthy Food Champions

Hear the words “hospital” or “clinic” and what terms come to mind? Healing? Good health? Rapidly expanding efforts by hospitals and clinics in Minnesota will soon add “healthy food” to that list of descriptors.

Healthcare facilities throughout Minnesota are working to improve access to healthy local foods—including fresh fruits and vegetables—for their employees and patients, as well as the communities they serve. They are also implementing policies to reduce access to less-healthy foods served on the premises.

iStock_000019936379_ExtraSmallThese efforts are an outgrowth of the realization that there is a direct link between health and food. Staff at health-care facilities also recognize the important role they can play by coalescing community stakeholders to develop solutions that increase access to healthy foods.

“When we did a community health assessment, childhood obesity – and obesity in general, rose to the top as a very serious health concern for our community. It made sense for us to get involved in efforts like the Food Charter to help improve the food choices for the community [because] hospitals and clinics are the organizations people look to for guidance on health, ” says Warren Larson of Bemidji, who is the director of public affairs for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota and a member of the Minnesota Food Charter’s Steering Committee.

Not only are these types of healthcare-based healthy food efforts occurring in more and more communities throughout the state, there is a significant variety in approach. For example, the Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital in Grand Rapids is giving every two- and three-year old who has a well-child clinic visit a portioned meal plate to take home with them that includes appropriately sized portion areas for the five food groups.  Another facility, the Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, partnered this summer with a regionally based food hub to make available, at a stall in the parking lot of their clinic, fresh produce grown by Brainerd-area farmers. Still another, the Meeker Memorial Hospital Foundation in Litchfield, partnered with the Litchfield Future Farmers of America to develop a garden-to-table program. Volunteers and staff from the hospital are working with the students to plant, care for and harvest a garden, the produce from which is being served to the hospital’s patients, as well as staff and visitors to the hospital’s cafeteria.

iStock_000022983785_ExtraSmallDr. David Wallinga, a physician who also serves on the Food Charter Steering Committee, says the role of hospitals and clinics in improving community access to healthy foods is important on several fronts.

“Their role … is huge for two reasons. First, they collectively buy $5 billion worth of food per year, so their purchasing decisions send a broad signal to the food market. Second, what hospitals do is so visible—it’s a symbol to their communities. It’s not surprising they are taking a lead since it has become increasingly obvious how important good food is to good health,” he says.

The importance of the initiative to public health harkens back to when hospitals became community leaders in the effort to prohibit smoking in public places. One of the first locations the public saw go smoke-free were hospitals and clinics. That, in turn, helped community members recognize the health benefits of smoke-free workplaces.

“The food movement in hospitals is just like the anti-tobacco movement. It really challenges health professionals to walk the talk to create the kind of environment which will be healthiest for their patients,” says Wallinga.

Larson says that healthcare facilities face many challenges to their work to improve healthy eating in communities, including the fact that eating a wide variety of foods is ingrained in many people, and that healthy foods can often be cost prohibitive for those who need them the most. He notes that two of the keys to helping overcome those obstacles are information and education, central components of the Minnesota Food Charter effort.Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 9.46.15 PM

“Good research and data that can be shared with the healthcare community can help to strengthen their position so they can, in turn, make a difference in their communities … and with their own employees. That’s why the Food Charter process is so important.,” he says.