Over the last century, we have radically altered the way we produce and distribute food through the creation of a highly consolidated and industrialized food system. This transformation is fundamentally affecting the health of our planet and its inhabitants. Rather than fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other high fiber foods important for health we created a system which favors the production of animal products and highly-refined, calorie-dense foods. Poor nutrition is a risk factor for four of the six leading causes of death in the US: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Hidden behind these nutritional imbalances is a food system reliant on and supported by methods of production and distribution that hurt humans and our environment.
In the United States, the typical food item now travels from 1,500 to 2,400 miles from farm to plate. This energy intensive system disconnects growers from the consumers, increases opportunities for food contamination and loss of nutrients during transportation, and plays a role in climate change emissions. Approximately 70% of all antibiotics produced are given to healthy animals to promote growth and compensate for poor husbandry practices. These are linked to Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and the spread of other antibiotic resistance bacteria. Humans now contain on average thirteen pesticides in their bodies and studies show that we are literally bathed in pesticides in the womb. In communities across the nation we can find “food deserts,” large and isolated geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are absent or distant and there is no access to healthy food. Clearly, we have not designed a system that is health promoting – we are having a system failure.
How we produce and distribute food has a profound impact on ecological health, and by obvious extension, human health. As places of healing, hospitals have a natural incentive to provide food that is healthy for people and the environment in which they live. The role of the healthcare community is important not only because of its moral authority, but also as a result of its substantial purchasing power, which influences both public policy and the supply chain. And the total healthcare market for food and beverages is big business accounting for about $12 billion a year. While patient food receives considerable attention in the media, cafeteria and catered food make up the largest percentage of food in the budget, accounting for approximately 55-70% of hospital volume.
Fortunately, we are witnessing a nascent movement that is beginning to address food systems from an ecological health perspective. At the forefront of this sea of change is the healthcare community. By the end of March 2009, more than 230 hospitals have signed the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge put forward by the Healthy Food in Healthcare Initiative of Health Care Without Harm, the campaign for ecologically sustainable healthcare. The pledge represents a commitment to support a localized, sustainable food system and acknowledges that healthy food must be defined by not only nutritional quality, but also equally by a food system that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable and supportive of human dignity and justice.
Examples of Healthcare’s leadership on these issues are included in the report Menu of Change, where you will learn how some hospitals are now beginning to serve local produce, grass fed beef raised without antibiotics or hormones, fair trade coffee and support local gardens. What you may discover in your local community is a hospital cafeteria that is a destination restaurant where community members go to the hospital for nutritious, local food. This summer the healthcare leaders from around the country will gather to learn or build their expertise at FoodMed 09 -The Third International Conference on Local, Sustainable Healthcare Food.
Unquestionably, if we are to solve the expanding ecological health crises facing our nation and globe, the healthcare community is going to have to become much more involved in policy and advocacy with a voice and urgency that may be unprecedented. Significantly, these changes in healthcare and society are going to require more than small changes in behavior. As Dr. David Pencheon, director of the United Kingdoms National Health System sustainable development unit, shared when announcing the dramatic elimination of meat from UK hospitals menus, "This is not just about doing things more efficiently, it's about doing things differently, because efficiency is not going to get us to big cuts…What will healthcare look like in 2030-2040 in a very low carbon society? It will not look anything like it looks now."
The current economic and healthcare crises provide the opportunity to re-examine our 21st century food and agriculture practices with a new health-conscious lens forcing the realization of our intrinsic connection to global health and ecological processes. There is potential, that these crises in combination with the models and agents of change that have been created, to change public policy in the service of primary prevention, ecological health and global healing.
If you work at a hospital, or know someone that does, ask how you can help them get engaged.
The finalists for NRDC’s first-ever Growing Green Awards are extraordinary leaders in the field of sustainable food. The award winners will be honored along with Michael Pollan at NRDC’s “Food for Thought” benefit in San Francisco on May 9th.