Healthy Food in Hospitals?

I know you’ve had a lot to say about the fast food and junk food in the schools, but what about hospitals? I was appalled recently when visiting a friend in the hospital to see a McDonald’s on the premises. What gives?

– December 4, 2006

I’ve had a fair amount to say about all the burger and pizza joints in medical centers. In fact, I wrote an Op-Ed piece on the subject that was published in the New York Times on June 6, 2006 ("Surgery with a Side of Fries"). In that article, I mentioned a 2002 University of Michigan survey that showed that four out of 10 hospitals in the United States have fast food restaurants on the premises. I also noted that efforts to rid the prestigious Cleveland Clinic of its McDonald’s franchise met with abject failure after staff members and visitors protested.

The latest look at fast food outlets at hospitals came from the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), which surveyed 234 hospitals and found that 42 percent had fast food outlets on their campuses. The AMSA urged hospitals to remove "nutritionally unsound food vendors" from their premises and commended those few institutions that have done so: Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center at Duke University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University.

On the plus side is a new and hopeful trend toward feeding hospital patients, their visitors and the staff more nutritious, tasty and appealing food. I recently came across an Associated Press article about the food at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Portland, Ore., that is reportedly so good that some patients came back to eat after they were released! According to the article, hospitals across the country (particularly in the west) have been serving organic produce, fresh fruit smoothies and have even established on-site farmers’ markets. The Kaiser Permanente health system based in California now has farmers markets at 31 of its medical sites.

Now that’s a trend I can get behind. But I fear that it will be an uphill battle to rid hospitals of their fast food outlets. What we need here is the kind of grassroots activism that has removed sugary sodas and candy from vending machines in many schools. Speak up and speak out in letters to the editor or in op-ed pieces for your local newspapers. Write to your elected representatives at all levels of government. Getting fast food out of hospitals should be a no-brainer, but it’s going to take a lot of squeaky wheels for this issue to get the grease – or, perhaps I should say, unsaturated oil – it deserves.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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