Hospitals Moving “Moo” Off the Menus

(Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Here’s a happy Earth Day item: Four hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area reduced their meat purchasing for menus by 28% in a pilot study, thereby avoiding significant amounts of associated greenhouse gas emissions and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs.

Most of the drop in greenhouse gases came from reduced purchases of beef, which is a notorious producer of gases that contribute to global warming.

The study is the first attempt to evaluate the “Balanced Menus” program, which was created by the San Francisco Bay chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and has been rolled out to 32 hospitals across the United States by the nonprofit organization Health Care Without Harm. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future partnered with Health Care Without Harm to conduct the study.

A hospital meal (not in one of the study hospitals) by flickr user VirtualErn (Creative Commons).

Two hospitals reduced meat (beef, pork and chicken) in its cafeterias or cafes, one hospital reduced meat in inpatient menus/meal services, and one hospital did both. The Balanced Menu program also had them try to replace the remaining meat on their menus with purchases from sustainable and grass-fed meat producers instead of industrialized meat sources.

The study estimated that in a year’s time, the reduced meat purchases would avoid a total of 1,004 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. That’s roughly equivalent to not using 102,454 gallons of gasoline, or growing 23,354 tree seedlings for 10 years. Although the study did not account for greenhouse gases associated with whatever food replaced that meat, no food makes gas like beef, so there’s no doubt the planet came out ahead.

They also calculated that the less-meat, better-meat program saved the four hospitals $21,080 per month in costs even after including increased purchases of fish and vegetable sources of protein. My calculator suggests that’s $252,960 per year.

What about the patients? No complaints there, only anecdotal reports of compliments. Plus changing the meat-heavy U.S. diet could help combat rising rates of diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. According to Department of Agriculture statistics, the U.S. food supply contains 58% more red meat and chicken (8.7 ounces per person per day) than is called for in dietary guidelines that cover meat, poultry, nuts, beans, and eggs (5.5 ounces per person per day).

One of the lessons learned in the pilot study, the investigators noted, is that hospitals should involve clinicians early in the process of menu development. If you’re a clinician who is looking for one small, achievable Earth Day action that could make a big difference, consider showing this study to your hospital team. They (and the planet) may thank you.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)
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