Hospitals up food quality without upping costs

Facilities serve up healthier choices at lower costs

Topics: Strategy, Health Systems, Service Lines, Behavioral Health, Quality, Performance Improvement

April 30, 2013

Hospitals are traditionally wary of the cost of incorporating healthier, tastier foods into their menus, but officials at facilities that offer local, organic, or sustainable options say they have not seen a major increase in costs.

The cost of healthier food options can seem overwhelming

Over the last year, hundreds of hospitals and one large food-service provider have pledged to participate in healthy food programs. Participants say the trend toward incorporating healthier food options into hospital menus and cafeterias is shaping purchasing practices, food service contracts, and business strategies for health care providers.

"There's more and more attention being paid to the obesity epidemic, the epidemic of chronic disease and this kind of knowledge that the healthcare sector should be playing a leadership role," says Michelle Gottlieb, co-coordinator of Health Care Without Harm's (HCWC) healthy food in health care initiative.

However, steady growth in food prices in recent years has increased pressure on budget-conscious hospitals to develop strategies that curb annual food expenses. And in the face of potential cuts to reimbursements, some hospitals are weighing whether to outsource their food service to address patient-satisfaction scores.

"Many hospitals are deeply engaged and busy with changes in health care regulations, and it can be daunting to be thinking about doing new initiatives that mean forging new relationships and patterns," Gottlieb notes.

Hospitals improve menus without increasing costs

Fletcher Allen Health Care—a 419-bed hospital in Burlington, Vt.—is considered a leader in the movement to provide healthier offerings, according to Modern Healthcare. The hospital works with 70 local farmers and producers and buys 80% of its beef from state farms that do not use therapeutic antibiotics. When the price on certain foods grows, the facility will substitute the foods to save money.

Diane Imrie, Fletcher's director of nutrition services, says, "[I]t's a fallacy to say healthier food always costs more," adding, "It takes a lot of work for it not to cost more, but it can certainly be done."

Unlike Fletcher Allen, which operates its own food service, Illinois-based Hospital Sisters Health System has contracted with food-service contractor Sodexho to offer more local and sustainable food products. As part of the contract, a quarter of the system's food must come from local sources, says Rick Beckler, director of food, nutrition, and environmental services at the system.

Beckler says that Hospital Sister's relationship with "big-box trucks" has allowed the system to continue buying local and sustainable foods, in part because those companies can help source local foods and ensure that regional producers are meeting safety standards (Lee, Modern Healthcare, 4/27 [subscription required]).

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