Better Off Well


Hospitals of the Future: Fletcher-Allen Helps Pave the Way

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The last time I was at a hospital, it was to visit a friend who'd been in a car accident. While in the elevator, I stood next to a man holding a McDonald's bag and two large smoothies. Another gentleman said to him, "You look like you're ready for the night!" The man with the bag smiled. "It's for my wife." He shook his head. "If you only knew how many times I've been here for her. This is crazy." The doors to the elevator opened and he walked off. There are still many in the general public who don't understand the food/health connection. I was in that place years ago, too. To bring an ill woman a dinner full of toxins in the form of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sugars, sodium, and saturated fat is not the way to promote healing. I might expect this from the average citizen. What I don't expect it from is the hospital itself.

While I was there, this is what was served to my friend.

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I posted to my Facebook business page and asked if anyone could identify. Most couldn't, but one woman who'd worked in the hospital was finally able to. "That is pork chop with gravy, and mashed (canned) sweet potatoes!" She went on to say that she'd tried to make changes to the food while she worked in the hospital, but was unable to do so. Frustrated, she finally left the health care industry.

Hospitals are THE place most of us go to heal. We count on hospitals to provide the care and direction we need to make our bodies better again. It's a place filled with staff specialized in every function of the body. Yet, when it comes to something as basic as supplying us with nutrient-dense food, the majority of hospitals fail. Miserably. And not only in the U.S. The Food Watch group surveyed 2,240 patients in England, and found that more than one-third of those surveyed went hungry rather than eat hospital food. Patients who are advised by their doctors to increase their intake of brown rice and fresh vegetables are fed white rice, macaroni and cheese, and cold, canned vegetables. Why? It comes down to the bottom line. Hospital executives choose to spend money on the latest technology- expensive equipment used in the treatment of various chronic illnesses. What they fail to realize is how important food is in that treatment process. "It's a big boat to turn," says Diane Imrie, Director of Nutrition Services at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, VT, and author of Cooking Close to Home.

Diane is part of a growing number of administrators working to make important changes in the way hospitals operate. She says most hospitals are reluctant to change because "changing food systems is a lot of work and money. It takes time to teach people."

But like hundreds of other hospitals around the country who've signed the Health Care Without Harm pledge, Fletcher-Allen is doing just that. In fact, according to Diane, they were one of the first to sign the pledge six years ago.

Since then, Fletcher-Allen has been a trailblazer in health care. It was the first hospital in the state to become LEED-certified, no small task and a sign of its dedication to reducing the hospital's carbon footprint. The green roof decreases the urban heat island effect, reduces stormwater run-off, and provides a place of retreat for its staff.

Diane took me for a rooftop tour, where edible produce was in abundance. She tells me the hospital brought in 400 lbs of food from its gardens last year, and was set to bring in 600 this year. Medicinal herbs are also a focus in the garden.

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The plants are grown using compost a local producer makes using food waste from the hospital. Honey served to patients is made in its off-site beehives. Most of its meat and eggs are organic and locally raised without hormones or antibiotics.

Diane and other food directors at Fletcher-Allen formed a Food Efficiency Program. Each director chooses a field to research, so the hospital is able to make the healthiest and most cost-efficient choices for its staff, the patients, and for the hospital. Doing so found that by growing the most expensive produce- greens, tomatoes, and herbs- the hospital could save money. Purchasing fish and meats from local sources not only supported the local economy, it meant cutting out the "middle man" to ensure the highest quality product. The program now extends across New England, so directors from various health care facilities can share best practices, ideas, and what has worked and hasn't.

What might a patient find on a Fletcher-Allen menu?

Says Diane, "soups, stews, homemade pasta sauce finished to order, and even Maine lobster." There are 30 different entrees, most of them with seasonal foods. As soon as the doctor provides nutrition information, a room-service menu is provided. Patients are allowed to order food when they are hungry, unlike most hospitals where food is served at a set time, whether patients are hungry- or available to eat- or not. The food is not cooked until it's ordered.

While I ooh and ahh over all these facts Diane gives me about Fletcher-Allen, she is careful to caution, "I can't overstate the culture change that needs to take place before change can happen". She explains that some hospitals don't even have cooking equipment anymore. "Cooking and food prep in hospitals is becoming a lost art". Cheap food produces revenue for the hospitals, and good food sometimes cost more.

What Diane and her staff have found, however, has been good news for the hospital. Not only has revenue increased, but employee satisfaction and health has improved. One employee came up to her and shared that she'd lost 30 lbs since the hospital had made its changes. "She said she'd learned so much about making better food choices."

Even with all these changes, Fletcher-Allen is not finished. While the last two-year goal is nearly complete, a new plan is on the horizon. Fletcher-Allen plans to continue its progressive policies and find the "least expensive way we can have the most impact".

I, for one, know that when I need healthcare, I want it to be at a place like Fletcher-Allen, a hospital that understands what true healing care is.