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Hospitals Reduce Greenhouse Emissions with “Less Meat, Better Meat” Approach to Foodservice - First-ever Evaluation Finds Reduced-meat Menus in US Hospitals Exceeds Expectations

Apr 20, 2010

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The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Health Care and Without Harm have released Balanced Menus: A Pilot Evaluation of Implementation in Four San Francisco Bay Area Hospitals,” the first US examination of the impact that reduced-meat menus in hospital food service have on climate change. The report concludes that a pilot implementation of the Balanced Menus program across four participating hospitals yielded greenhouse gas emissions that exceeded the initial 20 percent reduction goal and substantial cost savings.

“One of the most compelling aspects of this evaluation is the greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” says co-author of the report, Roni Neff, PhD, MS, research and policy director at the Center for a Livable Future and a faculty member at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If the four included hospitals continued what they were doing for a year, they would collectively cut over 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from meat purchases.  That’s like saving over 100,000 gallons of gasoline or growing over 23,000 trees for 10 years.”  Neff and doctoral student Lisa Lagasse, MHS, compared greenhouse gas emissions results using three different approaches, and all yielded similar results.  They note that in this pilot study, they did not have adequate data to characterize net impacts after accounting for replacement foods.

Since implementation of Balanced Menus in January 2009, the four pilot hospitals—Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; the San Francisco VA Medical Center; the John Muir Health Medical Center; and one anonymous facility—have reduced meat offerings in their cafeterias and/or patient meal programs.   These four San Francisco Bay Area hospitals have collectively reduced their meat purchasing by 28 percent and reduced the steep procurement costs associated with a high meat diet.

 “Balanced Menus is designed as a flexible approach that prioritizes reduced-meat menus in hospitals and encourages purchasing the healthiest, most sustainably produced meat available,” stated Lena Brook, Health Care Without Harm national Balanced Menus coordinator, and senior program associate, San Francisco Bay chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Nationally launched in September 2009, the Balanced Menus Challenge grew from concerns about the negative health and environmental impacts of industrialized meat production and a desire to support sustainable and grass-fed meat producers in the United States. Currently, 32 hospitals from across the country are committed to permanently reduce their meat purchasing by 20 percent in a year. Information on the Balanced Menus Program.

Encouraging a reduced and sustainable meat diet is part of a primary prevention agenda to reduce the nation’s skyrocketing rates of diet-related disease, including diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. Shifting meat consumption patterns would also contribute to larger climate mitigation efforts; promote cleaner air and water; and help protect the effectiveness of antibiotics. According to USDA statistics, there is about 50 percent more meat in the US food supply than would be appropriate to consume based on dietary guidelines. The vast majority of meat in the US is produced in industrialized settings, which contributes to a variety of environmental and public health problems. The American Dietetic Association’s Hunger and Environment Practice Group actively supports the Balanced Menus project and has created several resources to help dietetic professionals advocate for nutritious, sustainable health care food. This joint effort is an example of a larger movement within the health care sector to redefine food service operations through an ecological framework.

“The Balanced Menus Challenge was a natural next step to take after our initial year of setting up local vendors for produce, meats and poultry,” said Linda Hansen, Director of Nutrition Services for Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in Sonoma County, CA and an early adopter of the Balanced Menus campaign. “We need to continue to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint as a healthcare organization, to continue to support our local economies, and provide the healthiest food possible for our staff, patients, and visitors.”

In addition to reducing meat as part of the Balanced Menus approach, hospitals around the country are working with Health Care Without Harm to sponsor farmers’ markets on hospital grounds and negotiate with suppliers for more locally produced foods and foods raised without pesticides, non-therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones or genetic modification. Almost 300 hospitals have taken the HCWH Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge, which is a commitment to sourcing a broad range of food-related sustainability practices, and demonstrating their leadership in the larger marketplace to shift demand toward sustainable food procurement. 

Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of more than 430 organizations in 52 countries, working to transform the health care industry worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable and no longer a source of harm to public health and the environment. HCWH has an ambitious healthy food agenda, which includes buying fresh food locally and/or buying certified organic food; avoiding food raised with growth hormones and antibiotics; encouraging group purchasing organizations (GPOs) to support healthy food in healthcare; supporting local farmers and farming organizations; introducing farmers markets and on-site food box programs; reducing food waste; and establishing an overarching food policy at each health facility. To learn more about HCWH’s work on food and other issues related to health care.