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Leading By Example

When I heard Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) speak last October in Cleveland on National Food Day, he made an interesting statement…that a sea change in the agricultural system may be driven by an unlikely allie, the health care industry. What he was getting at was…medical insurance companies would eventually refuse to flip the bill for all the food related disease (diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.) and force a change in how food is produced so it heals, not hurts.

That same month, The Nation had a feature article about our food economy. Michael was quoted as saying, “As soon as the health care industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places—like the agriculture committees of Congress.”

Now there is another way that the medical profession could shift our food system away from an emphasis on price and convenience to an emphasis on health and sustainability! Dr. Lenard Lesser of Palo Alto Medical Foundation and colleagues, Deborah Cohen, MD; and Robert Brook, MD,  just published an article in the Journal of American Medical Association entitled “Changing Eating Habits for the Medical Profession.” The premise for the article was based on a recent recommendation by the Institute of Medicine which stated that health care professionals should act “as role models for their patients and provide leadership for obesity prevention efforts in their communities by advocating for institutional community, and state-level strategies that can improve physical activity and nutrition resources for their patients and their communities.”

Dr. Lesser points out one small problem with this theory…physicians are often overweight themselves. He referenced a 2004 report by the Physicians Health Study that found 44% of physicians were overweight or obese. But if we get hospitals serving healthier foods, not only will it advocate for a more holistic approach to health care that is patient-centered vs.just treatment-centered, but physicians will find it easier to practice what they preach because the foods being served will focus on consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and away from processed foods high in bad fats in high-fructose corn syrup.

The article draws a parallel to the impact that the health care industry had in initiating the tobacco ban movement of the 1960’s. It started with the surgeon generals report warning against the health dangers of smoking. That was the impetus for banning smoking in hospitals. Fast-forward to 2012 and smoking is banned in pretty much ever public place. Dr. Lesser suggests using a similar policy progression to “ignite a movement to improve the food environment.”

This idea has merit and legs…Dr. Lesser and his colleagues suggest starting with meals at medical conferences which replace high caloric lunches with healthier options. From there, hospitals could require that food service only purchase foods which meet a certified healthy criteria. Hospitals represent a critical mass strong enough that vendors would need to respond to this high demand. That high demand by institutions would have a ripple effect and require Big Ag to respond as well.

Just as the tobacco movement gained traction by placing its roots in the health care industry, the food movement could do the same and before we know it, healthy food would be as ubiquitous as no-smoking signs!

One of my freelance contracts is managing the philanthropic program, Gardens to Hospitals. Dr. Lenard Lesser is largely responsible for its creation. In 2010, he published a report which found that only 7% of meals in California children hospitals were healthy. Gardens to Hospitals hopes to increase that percentage by helping hospitals install edible gardens. Not only will hospitals be leading by example but growing food which will help their patients lead healthier lives!