Hospitals are meant to be locations where healthfulness is promoted and diseases are cured. However, when it comes to food, many hospitals aren’t promoting patient wellbeing at all. In a survey of 200 hospital food environments, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found that Chick-fil-A has 20 hospital contracts, McDonald’s has at least 18, and Wendy’s has five across the United States. Many of these hospitals are in the South, where obesity rates are disproportionately high.
Fortunately, medical professionals and healthy food advocates are fighting back against fast food contracts in hospitals. The PCRM, a national network of health professionals advocating for a preventative approach to diet-related diseases, is taking action, urging citizens to ask for more healthful options at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
Another organization, Healthcare Without Harm, also advocates for healthy food in the healthcare industry. Hundreds of hospitals across the country have signed a Healthy Food In Health Care Pledge developed by the organization. The pledge commits hospitals and healthcare institutions to building sustainable and healthful food procurement programs for the benefit of patients, staff, and patrons.
Food Tank spoke with Cameron Wells, RD, MPH, about hospital food environments. Ms. Wells is a staff dietician for the PCRM.
Food Tank (FT): How did you become concerned with unhealthy hospital food environments?
Cameron Wells (CW): I worked at a bariatric clinic and saw firsthand the damage of long-term poor eating habits. Using food as medicine, or as a means of prevention really got me interested in the work of the PCRM. As a physicians’ group, we have a lot of members. It wasn’t only physicians, but also nurses, physicians’ assistants, and healthcare providers in general who were noticing poor food environments in the hospitals where they work every day. I personally visited various hospitals during my dietetic internship, and I think we’ve all had loved ones we’ve visited in the hospital. It’s hard not to be struck by the unhealthful food that patients are served, and the general food environment for patrons and staff as well. There’s just a major disconnect in a facility or institution that should be setting a good example for health.
FT: How does the PCRM work to change these environments?
CW: We started our Hospital Food Report a number of years ago. The point is really to bring attention to this issue of unhealthy food environments in hospital settings. We have researched various topics, from children’s hospitals to public hospitals, to touch on various populations within different areas of the report. We want to call attention to where hospitals may be going wrong, and advocate for change. I think the reports really bring people together and get the conversation going; since we’ve started the report, we have seen a number of hospitals remove fast food restaurants from their facilities. Most recently we saw Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles remove McDonald’s from their facilities. Slowly, we’re beginning to see more hospitals following suit, but there are still many hospitals that engage fast food restaurants in contracts.
FT: Why do the PCRM recommendations focus specifically on fast food contracts rather than on unhealthful foods in general?
CW: We care about the healthfulness of food in general, but I think the fast food contracts are just a very blatant conflict of interest. Large corporations are essentially operating within the confines of a hospital environment, with an eye out for the bottom line. Fast food companies are not looking out for the health of the patients, the staff, or hospital patrons. They aren’t thinking about long-term health outcomes. The presence of these companies in hospital facilities is almost comical, because their priorities are so misaligned with a message of wellbeing.
FT: What are some of the biggest challenges in making hospital rooms #FastFoodFree?
CW: Since fast food is a moneymaking industry, a lot of marketing dollars are available to promote their products and secure hospital contracts. There’s not a corresponding effort pushing for carrots, whole grains, or legumes. So that’s one of the toughest things, and hamburgers and French fries just shouldn’t be an option in a hospital. The message from hospital food environments should be more consistent with the overall goals of patient wellness, rather than catering to companies that promote the diseases that bring people to the hospital in the first place.