Food for Health Forum: An Rx for Doctors

by Sarah Henry on October 16, 2010 · 41 comments

in civil eats,farmers' markets,food events,food politics,hospital food

Photo: Michael Pollan

Today, the man who encourages us all to eat food, mostly plants, and not too much will bring his prescription for a healthier population and planet to a group that, surprisingly, he hasn’t spoken to before: Doctors and other healthcare professionals.

The man, of course, is Michael Pollan — who talks about the importance of eating and growing sustainable food to folks as diverse as urban ag advocates and Oprah fans. The best-selling food book author will address physicians, dieticians, hospital food service staff, and others at the Food for Health Forum in San Francisco sponsored by HMO giant Kaiser Permanente.

Rather than rehash the sorry state of hospital food in many parts of the country, Pollan sees this as an opportunity to rally a new audience.  In an email prior to the event, he writes that he wants to encourage doctors to help drive change in this country’s food system by talking about food with patients, pressuring hospitals to serve better meals to both employees and the sick, and supporting national reform by getting involved in farm bill politics.

Whether docs heed his Rx remains to be seen. Of course, this being the dollar-driven healthcare world we’re talking about, there’s always the bottomline to make those in the business of medicine sit up and pay attention. In the past, Pollan has noted that “the less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare.” He cites statistics which reveal that in 1960 the U.S. spent 18% of its income on food and 5% on healthcare nationally, while now it spends 9% of its income on food and 17% on healthcare.

Hosting a food health forum in San Francisco makes sense. As reported here previously, the Bay Area is a hot bed for hospital food reform. And the driving force behind today’s event is a high-profile player in the movement, Dr. Preston Maring, associate physician-in-chief at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland.

Maring, 65, who is relatively new to food advocacy, has worked for Kaiser for almost four decades. During his tenure he’s delivered babies as an obstetrician, worked in hospital administration, and spearheaded the creation of its new pediatric neurosurgery unit.

Photo: Dr. Preston Maring

His most recent work for the organization, though, has been all about what people eat.  In 2003, Maring started an organic farmers’ market at his hospital.

Since then, 35 markets have sprung up in Kaiser facilities in five states, serving employees, members, and the greater community.

He has worked to get more fresh, local food into Kaiser hospitals and forged ties with local, sustainable farmers, including the nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), where he is on the board.

Improving food at Kaiser, which runs the largest nonprofit health care system in the country, has the potential to impact a lot of eaters. The provider and insurer has about 8 million members, 15,000 doctors, and 165,000 employees, mostly in the western states.

In his hospital rounds Maring urges docs to vote with their forks and choose organic, sustainable food for their families. He wants employees and patients alike to eat more fruits and veggies. To help them do that, this enthusiastic cook shares recipes on his blog, offers kitchen wisdom in short Web videos, and conducts a culinary show on the road, teaching new hospital employees basic cooking skills.  “A couple of cutting boards and a sharp knife are the best public health tools we have,” says Maring. “My mantra is: If a guy like me can do it, you can do it.”  (Maring and his medical student-chef son were the subject of a recent New York Times profile by Civil Eats co-founder Katrina Heron.)

Pollan and Maring will be joined on stage by acclaimed cookbook author Mollie Katzen, who is used to talking with physicians, through her work as a member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable and at events Harvard sponsors aimed at hospital food personnel at the Culinary Institute of America.

She plans to give healthcare professionals a gentle nudge to head into the kitchen and cook something simple, for themselves, to eat. “I want to give people a little pep talk — not wag my finger at them and talk about how we’re all getting sicker and fatter,” says Katzen, who will demo cooking techniques (think dicing, mincing, and macerating) as she talks. “My mission is modest: I want to help people reclaim the lost art of cooking by learning to make one or two dishes.”

Photo: Mollie Katzen

Katzen says she’d like to obliterate the imaginary line in the sand that puts delicious food on one side and healthy food on the other (and, as an aside, notes that most hospital food is neither.) She adds that Maring, who waxes euphoric about salad dressing made from scratch, is just the kind of visionary needed to overhaul hospital food.

Rounding out the line up is Brenda Eskenazi, a UC Berkeley researcher who will discuss the effects of pesticides on farm workers and their children, organic farmer and CAFF member Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, and several hospital food folks, who will chime in with reports from the inside.

Attendee Alison Negrin, executive chef of John Muir Health, which operates hospitals in the East Bay, says she hopes panelists will recognize the work that has been done to improve hospital food.

Negrin thinks doctors are beginning to understand the key role food plays in health. As an example, she recounts an exchange she had with a physician at her hospital who, while heartened by healthy choices in the cafeteria, questioned why fried foods and sodas were still on the menu. (These items now come with signage about calorie and fat content.)

“People like myself and others on the Bay Area Hospital Leadership Team have been talking about these issues and working hard to improve hospital food for some time,” notes Negrin, speaking of a group coordinated by the SF Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), while conceding that change can move at a glacial pace in such institutional settings. “But I think many of us hope to come away from this forum reinvigorated with new ways to fix hospital food and fresh ideas we can incorporate into our own settings.”

Others who have toiled on the hospital food reform beat for some time are particularly interested to hear what Craig Watson, who works for the SYSCO Corporation, has to say. SYSCO is a major hospital food distributor.

“Hospital farmers’ markets are fabulous, but we all know that improving the quality of food served to employees and patients is a slow process,” says Lena Brook, senior program associate for PSR. “Preston Maring would be the first to acknowledge that Kaiser is a bulky facility to move in terms of improving food. I hope this forum gets people thinking big and helps us all find ways to make change faster.”

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Hospital Food Gets a Makeover

Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules at Ferry Building

Mollie Katzen: Get Cooking Author Dishes

Fixing Hospital Food

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine @ Origami Mommy October 17, 2010 at 1:25 am

Sarah, I’m glad to hear this event will be taking place. It’s so needed. I remember reading an article about Dr. Maring’s good work, and I’ve been hoping it will just be the start of a new trend. (Living in Japan, I’m always quite struck by how different my experience of institutional (hospital, school) food here is compared to at home in the U.S.).

Pollan’s quote (about the costs of food and healthcare) is so very true!
Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Picture books


Sarah Henry October 17, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Christine, I still remember the photos you took of the tasty-looking meals served to you after your child was born in Japan. The cross-cultural comparisons are telling.


MarthaAndMe October 17, 2010 at 7:19 am

This is so important and I’m glad to see doctors and hospitals getting involved. What’s taken so long though?!


Sarah Henry October 17, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Folks like Maring, Negrin, and Brook have been working on hospital food reform for several years now but institutional change is slow in places that are supplied by large food distributors. Still, there are encouraging signs in pockets of the country, like the Bay Area.


Marc October 17, 2010 at 7:41 am

These events are absolutely a great idea and the healthcare world is indeed dollar-driven, but the motivations of the different players varies widely. Health care providers, medical device manufacturers and drug companies get paid a lot more to treat ailments than to keep people healthy, so pitching the healthy diet message to those groups can be tricky. I think the financial message would play better with insurance company executives, Medicare administrators and other people that manage public healthcare programs. Those groups, after all, would prefer that everyone stays as healthy as possible so their claim payment rate is minimized.

Some people (Pollan included) have argued that nations with national healthcare programs have more incentive to push healthy diets because a healthier population means lower costs for the system.
Marc´s last [type] ..Does the edible percentage of an avocado depend on its size


Sarah Henry October 17, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Thanks for chiming in, Marc, with good points all. As you know, Kaiser is both a provider and an insurer with a strong preventive health focus. But your point about national healthcare programs having an incentive to promote healthy eating is valid.


Jennifer Margulis October 18, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Good point Marc. I think this is really true. At the same time, in the best of all possible worlds, doctors and other health care providers would want to work themselves out of a job. I like to think that many do. They just tend to be ignorant about nutrition as they don’t learn about it in medical school.


Susan October 17, 2010 at 8:42 am

Agreed! It makes sense for healthcare professionals to get involved.


Sarah Henry October 17, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Yes, I think few would argue that most docs are kind of late to the table on the food as medicine front. It seems absurd that nutrition education isn’t part of medical school curriculum, though, as noted in the Times story, that’s changing in some places.


Merr October 17, 2010 at 9:20 am

It seems like the most logical thing to have healthcare folks involved, doesn’t it? It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Oh my, I certainly hope it’s not a reality show!
Merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Literary Agent Interview- Elisabeth Weed


Sarah Henry October 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Do you mean with someone like Preston Maring in the Jamie Oliver role, Merr?


Lori Friedman October 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm


Were you able to attend this event? I was there – it was really fantastic! Very motivating!


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:19 am

Hi Lori, Nice to see you here. I wasn’t able to attend the Food Health Forum — hence this preview post — because I’m at the Food, Culture, Justice Conference in New Orleans sponsored by the Community Food Security Coalition. More on that later.

I’d welcome your insights from the day.


Alexandra October 17, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Such a hopeful post! I’ve got my fingers crossed that this catches on.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Who Is Really Celebrating this Oysterfest


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:19 am

As do many others, Sandy.


MyKidsEatSquid October 18, 2010 at 1:45 am

This idea of physicians having a better idea of how food can be healing makes so much sense. I know of at least one hospital here in the Midwest that is really embracing this idea–the food is mostly organic, certainly locally grown, no fryers in the kitchen. Love it.


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:20 am

Good to know this concept is catching on in the heartland too, MKES.


Ruth Pennebaker October 18, 2010 at 6:16 am

Like so many brilliant ideas, this one seems so obvious: Why shouldn’t hospital food have always been nutritious and delicious? Kudos to those who are pushing for it.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..The Sound of One Mouth Flapping


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:20 am



Roxanne October 18, 2010 at 7:04 am

Since I’ve been spending more time than anyone should in hospitals with various family members in the last 15 months or so, I can attest to the dismal state of hospital food. It’s very hard to be a good, healthy caretaker (as a family member) when the only food available is too fatty, icky, etc.


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:23 am

I’m sorry, Roxanne, that you’re doing the hospital rounds right now. And your point about caretakers needing too be well nourished too is a good one.

Best to you and your family members for a return to good health.


ALISA October 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm

This is such an important mission. I couldn’t help but notice just how glowy and healthy these healthy eating proponents look in their photos. If that isn’t an ad for healthy eating, I don’t know what is.
ALISA´s last [type] ..The Art of Being Happily Married Series


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 8:52 pm

You’re right, of course, Alisa, and yet that thought hadn’t occurred to me. These folks are the poster people for a healthy lifestyle.


Jennifer Margulis October 18, 2010 at 7:49 pm

This sounds like an amazing amazing event, one which I would like to attend. What an incredible group of people speaking. I really appreciate this preview. Hospital food is just so disgusting most of the time. It’s not food. It’s packaged crud. I hope we can read more about what went on and what was said. I wasn’t clear from this post WHEN the event was/is taking place?
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..Pacific Northwest Hotels Leading an Eco-Luxe Trend


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Reading too fast, Jen: The first word of the post is “today” with Saturday’s dateline above;)

I wrote it as a preview piece, since I’m actually out of town at another food conference and wasn’t able to attend. But I think I got a sense from speaking with the main presenters regarding what the conversation was going to look like, which some of them have confirmed post event.

That said, I’d welcome hearing impressions from the forum from any attendees.


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 18, 2010 at 7:57 pm

We were just talking about a stat we heard this morning. I can’t find the reference, but we HEARD that Auckland Hospital started saving $150k a year by adding a fresh kiwifruit to patients’ plates each day. More kiwifruit, less trouble with constipation, less intervention by staff and fewer medications. So simple!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Hours Off The Nest


Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Seriously? Would love a source for that, Melanie. And I know more than one reason why this revealing tidbit stayed in your mind, Frugal Kiwi.


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 20, 2010 at 10:19 am

I looked for a source before commenting, but didn’t find it. Asked Frugal Man and he said a friend of ours mentioned it to him and he mentioned it to me. Good solid third hand information!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Biological Incubation Unit Failure


Sheryl October 20, 2010 at 9:12 am

So glad someone is finally addressing this issue. Why hospitals don’t serve better – and healthier – foods astounds me. First of all, it’s a health setting where people are trying to get well. Secondly when people are in the hospital, they certainly need to be nourished not only physically but psychologically. And there’s nothing more depressing than ugly, tasteless food.


Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

“There’s nothing more depressing than ugly, tasteless food.” Well said, Sheryl.


steph October 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm

The food in Bay Area hospitals is the worst. And, god forbid you have a food allergy – it’s like they were trying to keep me there!
steph´s last [type] ..Lemon Verbena Macaron Recipe


Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm

So local hospitals don’t do a good job catering to special diets, such as gluten-free folks, Steph? You’d think they’d be all over that, at least.


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