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Disruptive Innovators: Hospitals increase community access to healthier food

Hospitals are leading the way to improving population health

A number of hospitals across the country have set out to demonstrate that healthy diets improve patient health and reduce healthcare costs. Those efforts got a boost recently when the Union of Concerned Scientists released an analysis of the benefits of improving patient health through better access to fresher, healthier food.

Among the good news for the healthy food movement, the advocacy group found that increasing the overall consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in healthcare costs from heart disease each year.

“The local food movement has caught on in a big way in the last five to seven years,” said Sharon Sheldon, health promotion and disease prevention program administrator for Washtenaw County Public Health in Michigan. WCPH is one of many organizations across the country taking part in the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge, a program spearheaded by Health Care Without Harm.

Since 2005, more than 450 hospitals and food service management companies in the United States have committed to implementing strategies to improve their hospital food and beverage environments by signing Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge. As part of their participation, organizations such as WCPH, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Steward Healthcare in Boston have encouraged sustainable health by supporting the economic viability of local farms, supporting sustainable production practices through their purchases, and connecting with community-based programs that provide education and access to healthy foods. 

Some of their initiatives include subsidized subscriptions for low-income community members, fruit and vegetable prescription programs, on-site vegetable gardens and farmers markets with double value coupon programs.

According to Hillary Bisnett, the Healthy Food in Healthcare project coordinator for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., in Michigan alone there are more than 20 hospitals with farmers markets and many of them offer food assistance programs as a form of payment.

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“Over the course of the 18‐week farmers market season in 2011, sales at the hospital‐based markets reached $14,577 – 55 percent of the total season income for Eastern Market’s neighborhood markets in Detroit,” said Bisnett. “Innovative programs and pilots are taking place around food prescriptions – in Lansing, Detroit and Washtenaw County – to expand patient access to fresh, local foods. Our partners at the Washtenaw County Public Health Department Prescription for Health Program have assisted our organization in expanding this program to the Community Health and Social Services (CHASS) clinic in Detroit.”

These healthy food programs are a win for both hospitals and communities. Supporters of these programs note that by promoting healthy foods and eating, hospitals are improving the health of their patient population, offering the community a valued resource and helping the community’s local economy.

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At St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital, a local farmer has been employed to help the hospital connect local, organically-grown foods to patient and cafeteria meals as well as providing an on-site farm stand, and the hospital has nearly 20 acres under production and three hoop houses to extend the growing season. One of these hoop houses is used for patient therapy and is accessible for patients in wheelchairs.

Lisa McDowell, the hospital’s chief clinical nutritionist, said that these initiatives don’t have to be costly for the hospital to implement.

“We were asked to find a way to be cost neutral in implementing these programs,” she said. To achieve the hospital’s low-budget operation, the program relies on volunteers, for example. “We have students providing the labor for the farms, as well as community volunteers. Our farms are open to everyone.”

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