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Washington Hospital Focuses on Socially Responsible Food Purchasing

September 17, 2013

Washington Hospital is increasing the amount of seasonal, organic, and locally grown produce it puts on patients' plates thanks to a collaborative purchasing effort by hospitals in the region and a new computer system that makes real-time menu changes. The hospital is part of the Regional Produce Purchasing Project, which works with small independent local farmers to purchase produce.

"It's really about making smart decisions around how we provide food and nourish the people we serve," said Kim Alvari, a registered dietitian and director of Food and Nutrition Services at Washington Hospital. "We want to be socially, economically, and environmentally responsible while providing the most nutritious food possible to our patients, visitors, and staff."

Alvari is responsible for the food purchases at Washington Hospital and she takes her job seriously. Patients' health is her top priority and as a district hospital, she also has a duty to the community to stretch the dollar as far as it will go.

"For some produce, it's much better to have organic," Alvari said. "For example, strawberries have a high pesticide load. We know that pesticides pass through breast milk to the infant. So we felt that if we could get organic strawberries, it would be much better. Through the Regional Produce Purchasing Project, we were able to negotiate a good price on organic strawberries from a local grower."

Washington Hospital joined the Regional Produce Purchasing Project last fall. It includes six Bay Area hospitals and is organized by San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility (SF PSR) in partnership with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).
Field Trip

Alvari had the opportunity to visit a local farm in August to see firsthand how these small family farms operate. She and Scott Garcia, food purchasing supervisor at Washington Hospital, took a tour of Dwelley Farms in Brentwood.

"We were able to talk to the farmers and ask questions about food safety," she said. "About 60 percent of food-borne illnesses come from produce, so it's important to know who is providing the food and what kind of safe-handling practices they have in place. For example, is there a place for workers to wash their hands, how is the water kept clean, how do they bring the trucks in and out of the fields, and how do they avoid contamination with animal waste? I was impressed with what I saw at the farm."

CAFF, a nonprofit organization that advocates for family farms and sustainable agriculture, is helping to connect hospitals to local farms like Dwelley. Often small family farms are shut out from the institutional market, according to Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). The local project is part of HCWH's nationwide Healthy Food in Health Care initiative.

"We believe in the nutritional value that local, seasonal produce has to offer," Alvari said. "It also cuts down on the environmental impact of transporting the produce long distances."
Farm to Tray

Washington Hospital is in a much better position to take advantage of local, seasonal produce now that it has a new state-of-the-art software tool that can make instantaneous changes to patient menus.

"For example, we may get notified that a large quantity of green beans is available from a local farm at a good price," Alvari explained. "In the past, it would have been difficult to make last-minute menu changes to take advantage of this fresh produce. Each patient has an individualized menu plan that takes into account their dietary needs. But with CBORD, the new software program, we can easily make these changes and create recipes for the produce."

She said the effort is all part of Washington Hospital's continued focus on healthier food and environmentally sound practices. Washington Hospital is a member of SF PSR's Bay Area Hospital Leadership Team, started in 2005 to help local hospitals share knowledge and pool their purchasing power to focus on healthier, sustainably produced food.

"At Washington Hospital, we are trying to shift the way people think about how they eat," Alvari said. "Most Americans eat way too much meat and not enough fruits and vegetables. We need to shift that focus to fresh produce. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is prevention-based medicine. Nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables help to reduce the risk for cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses."

For information about programs and services at Washington Hospital that can help you stay healthy, visit www.whhs.com/nutrition

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