Fixing Hospital Food

by Sarah Henry on August 13, 2010 · 21 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,food events,hospital food

In many ways Lucia Sayre is your typical Berkeley resident: She has a fondness for farmers’ markets, growing her own greens, and eating local foods.

As director of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group that promotes public health policies, she wants to do more than make a difference at her dinner table. Her mandate: To help local hospitals purchase, prepare, and serve food to patients and employees that is better for them and the environment.

Improving hospital food is a Herculean task if ever there was one. But in six years of working on this issue Sayre says she’s been encouraged by changes, such as increased local sourcing, taking place at nine healthcare facilities she liaises with, including John Muir Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

High on her list of achievements is her group’s Balanced Menus Challenge. The campaign nudges hospital food service directors to reduce the amount of animal protein in meals, cut industrial meat procurement by 20 percent, and increase sustainably produced alternatives, such as grass-fed beef raised without hormones or antibiotics. A switch like this, says Sayre, benefits public and environmental health, and also lowers hospital costs, a win-win for administrators watching over tight food budgets.

A recent trial study by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which collected data on cuts in beef, pork, and poultry purchasing at four Bay Area hospitals this public health advocate works with revealed a 28 percent drop in meat costs a year, a saving of around $400,000.

Work aside, Sayre has personal reasons for wanting to see hospital food improve. Hospitalized after the birth of her daughter seven years ago due to severe anemia, she relied on her then-husband to bring spinach salads and roast beef sandwiches to help her regain her health during her in-patient stay.

She has previous experience in public health community organizing with a food focus. Before moving to Berkeley Sayre worked for the food security project Tucson Urban Gardens helping mostly Latina women immigrants tend produce gardens along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I spoke with Sayre, 49, over dinner at her Central Berkeley home, where she works and lives with her two children. (Full disclosure: She is a friend.)

Sayre is part of a panel discussion tonight on rethinking hospital food service at the John Muir Medical Center’s Concord campus, where panel organizer Alison Negrin serves as executive chef. The event is co-sponsored by the John Muir Health Green Team, along with East Bay and Delta Diablo Slow Food Chapters. A kitchen tour begins at 5:30, discussion starts at 6:15, find more details here.

When people think of hospital meals, what comes to mind?

Hospital food is a long-standing joke. People assume it’s awful. It’s considered the worst institutional food, right up there with what gets served in prison.

How does Physicians for Social Responsibility work with local healthcare centers to improve food?

We provide technical assistance, organizational support, and forums for food service directors to share what they’ve learned about how to purchase, prepare, and serve nutritious and healthy food that’s good for people and the environment. This kind of institutional change is really challenging.

There’s an entrenched system of buying and making food in hospitals with purchasing contracts that can be tough to work around. But I’ve seen a shift here since a conference in Oakland in 2005 called FoodMed, where we brought sustainable agriculture representatives together with hospital food directors.

Why is this work important to you?

It’s one thing to make the personal decision to eat locally grown produce and cook meals at home and grow your own food. That’s all good, but it’s peanuts in the grand scheme of things. I want to affect food change in a large-scale way, and tackling hospital food is one way to do that.  I do think it’s important for patients to get healthy food while they’re in hospital, but the average in-patient stay is only three days. The people who really need better food at hospitals are the employees, who eat in the cafeteria five to seven times a week.

How can patients let hospitals know they expect better food?

Hospital administrators care — a lot — about patient evaluations known as Press Ganey surveys. So let the staff know what your food experience was like while you were hospitalized, whether it was good or bad and why. Or write a letter to the hospital; they do pay attention to these things.

Who do you think is leading the charge to overhaul hospital food?

People like Alison Negrin, who is a kind of rock star in the hospital food movement. She’s a celebrated chef who happens to work at John Muir as the executive chef — not every hospital has that position — and she and her team have made a lot of improvements to the food there. Alison comes from a place that hospitals are healing centers and the food that is served there should be part of that overall mission. It’s such a no-brainer and yet it seems like a novel concept and not everyone makes the connection. Our work really depends on having champions in the field like Alison.

What do you like about growing your own food in Berkeley?

Growing food here is a joy: The variety, accessibility, and the temperate climate, it’s all great. In contrast, growing food in the Arizona desert is really hard work; the soil there is so calcified it’s like trying to plant in a rock quarry. And if you don’t water constantly your plants just die. I grew up in the mid-West, the vast land of corn and soybeans. We had a summer garden, mostly tomatoes and green beans. Here I can grow pretty much what I want.

Where do you like to eat out in town?

My favorite place to take the kids is Sushi California. We can walk from home, it’s cozy, and there’s an acoustic guitar player on Monday and Friday nights. It’s super fresh, healthy, and a treat. I love that my children are exposed to a diverse range of food here. I don’t think I ate sushi until I was in my 20s.

For a quick, cheap lunch I like the specials at Vik’s. For $6-$10 you can get a flavorful eggplant, lamb, or chicken dish. I really like to have a substantial hot lunch, especially on cold and foggy days.

When I eat out with adults, I’m a fan of nursing small plates of delicious food along with a really good cocktail. My favorite places to do that include Five, I love the Southern sensibility and the extended happy hour. Their orzo mac & cheese with tomato jam is fantastic washed down with a Moscow Mule.

Cesar and Fonda also do small plates well, and Fonda’s serves killer margaritas. My latest place to go for small plates is Revival, where you can nibble on fresh garbanzo bean hummus and squash blossom flatbread. And they serve the most amazing dips — blue cheese aoili and pistachio-aise — with their French fries, which come out clean and crisp. I love the vibe there.

(Photo of Lucia Sayre: Rebecca Dale, Photo of Alison Negrin: © Akim Aginsky 2008)

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on The Bay Citizen.

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Doctor’s Orders: Eat Your Greens Advises Preston Maring
Berkeley Bites: Amy Murray, Venus, and now Revival

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

MyKidsEatSquid August 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what’s going on in the hospital food movement and it’s encouraging. I admire Chef Negrin–and Sayre’s–efforts. You might check out Chef Frank Turner at the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan–he’s trying to do something very similar, including all-organic ingredients, farmers’ markets on site and you won’t find a fryer anywhere on site.


Sarah Henry August 13, 2010 at 10:04 am

Thanks for the tips on what’s happening in the hospital food movement in Michigan, Kristen.


Sheryl August 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I am so happy to learn that there is actually someone out there who is addressing this issue. Hospital food is notoriously awful – and unhealthy (which is so counter-intuitive, if you ask me). Every time I’ve been in the hospital, my husband has had to play caterer for me. Why, when a person is hospitalized and needs all the help and nutrition they can get, do hospitals put such awful food in front of them? Glad someone has finally made the connection between healthy nutrition, nurturing and wellness.


Sarah Henry August 13, 2010 at 7:46 pm

It seems like so many of us take it as a given that the food in hospital will be terrible. I can’t tell you how many people asked: “Can I bring you something good to eat?” when I called to tell them where I was.


Meredith August 13, 2010 at 5:47 pm

It seems logical to have healthy food in a hospital, doesn’t it? Glad to hear there is a hospital food improvement movement. It’s so important yet so long overlooked.
Meredith´s last [type] ..How about writing a manuscript in 1 month- 4 days


Sarah Henry August 13, 2010 at 7:49 pm

It seems like hospital food reform lags behind the school food movement but perhaps it will start to play catch up.


Beth Wilcox August 14, 2010 at 9:45 am

Lucia is one of my heroes!
(full disclosure ….. also my sister)


sarah henry August 14, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Welcome, Beth.

Glad to know that Lucia’s family is seeing her achievements documented in cyberspace.

Having a sis for a hero is a mighty fine thing.
sarah henry´s last [type] ..Hospital Food Gets a Makeover


Vera Marie Badertscher August 16, 2010 at 9:54 am

I used to be totally appalled at the fried, dull, non-fresh foods available in hospital cafeterias and in the rooms. (Sausage and eggs and cream-cheese pastries in a Heart Hospital?) But the hospitals I’ve visited in the past few years here in Arizona seem to have gotten food religion. The choices are much broader and more appealing, and patients actually get some downright gourmet choices (unless they are on restricted diets). Don’t you think it mostly goes back to the poor/non-existent training doctors get in nutrition? And shouldn’t we be starting there?
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Following the War of Roses through England


Sarah Henry August 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Glad to hear that some places in Arizona have wizened up (if not all, see Lisa’s comments above).

You raise an interesting point Vera Marie. While I think docs do lag behind on nutritional training the responsibility also lies with the folks who run the nutrition services at medical centers.

I was heartened to hear from Alison Negrin that some of the top docs who will be running a new heart center at John Muir have been having conversations with her about the food available to both staff and patients, so some physicians are making the connection to diet and overall health.


Alexandra August 16, 2010 at 10:34 am

When Lucia finishes up with hospital food, how about attacking nursing home food? When my mom was in a rehabilitation center that has a nursing home wing, I often found the food she was served inedible. Most of the patients are elderly and cannot chew well, but the menu did not reflect this. I had to sneak her in yogurt and healthy snacks.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..How Unique We All Are!


Sarah Henry August 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Great point, Sandy. Nursing home food obviously faces unique challenges but as you note, there are ways to make food appetizing and interesting even for the most hampered eaters among us.


Anna, The Lemon Lady August 16, 2010 at 8:47 pm

As soon as I spotted the title of this article, I quickly scanned the list of hospitals. I knew John Muir in Walnut Creek would be on the good list. I gave birth to Ava in 12/06 at John Muir. The hospital food was delicious! The only disappointment was checking out before lunchtime on the final day of stay. I missed my lunch. :(

Alas, we had our little baby girl in our arms and she has yet to miss a meal!


Sarah Henry August 16, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Good to get some in-patient perspective on the John Muir food.
Thanks for writing, Anna.


Jane March 13, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Hospital food is similar to retirement home food as well. I think the biggest concern for the food is that it lacks flavor (i.e. salt). With fresh different spins on recipes, I think hospital food can be vastly improved.
Jane´s last [type] ..Our Favorite Toy Stethoscope


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