Hopefully, you haven’t been hospitalized lately. But if you have, you may have noticed the food you were served while regaining your strength is a lot better than it used to be. That’s no accident.

In California, 25 percent of the state’s hospitals are participating in the California Healthy Food in Health Care Program, including San Diego Medical Center, Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego, UC San Diego Hillcrest Hospital, Palomar Health and others.

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According to a new report released last week by Health Care Without Harm and the San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, hospitals and medical centers are making strides in providing patients and staff healthier meals. Of the 127 hospitals participating in the program, 78 percent have a healthy beverage program.  That means full-calorie sodas and sugar-heavy energy drinks are being replaced with diet drinks or products like Vitamin Water Zero. The same percentage of hospitals have programs in place to reduce the amount of meat served in their cafeterias, and to source the meat they do purchase from sustainable producers.

There’s a big emphasis on local sourcing as well. A whopping 91 percent purchase local and/or sustainable foods and beverages — that means they’re buying items like cage-free eggs and meat raised without antibiotics. More than half (62 percent) the facilities purchase organic food; and a small percentage (3.5 percent) even source products that contain no genetically engineered ingredients.

“Five to 10 years ago, there wasn’t much going on in this area at all,” said Barbara Hamilton, sustainability manager at Palomar Health, which includes Pomerado Hospital in Poway, Palomar Health and Palomar Medical Center in Escondido. “But the last five years there’s been a pretty large resurgence of getting back to basics and understanding processed food isn’t the best food for our health.”

Hamilton said Palomar Health now sources 30 percent of what they buy from the Southern California region (though not specifically from San Diego County growers). Menus for both patients and staff are heavy on fruits and vegetables. Meat, including poultry, pork and beef, has been cut by 10 percent. With nearly 500 beds and 4500 employees, even small percentages in change can add up.

The concern with serving meats, said Hamilton, includes the environmental footprint left by industrial agriculture and the use of antibiotics in meat production – something both the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warn is a serious concern, particularly as is relates to an increase antibiotic-resistant pathogens. (Need a recent example? Just look at last month’s Foster Farms outbreak, which had a nearly 40 percent hospitalization rate for consumers who became infected with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.)

Over at Rady Children’s Hospital, Cheri Fidler, director of the Center for Healthier Communities, said their “Rethink Your Drink” initiative was the most significant advancement they’ve made this year.

“Using the red/yellow/green traffic light approach, we implemented a widespread educational campaign, and also re-merchandised our beverages,” she wrote in an email.

While the hospital did not eliminate sugar-sweetened drinks, like full-calorie sodas or energy drinks, Fidler said it increased options for drinks like waters and low-calories beverages that would fall into the better-choice category, which resulted in a 40 percent drop in sales of sugar sweetened drinks since October 2012.

Fidler, however, did not respond to our specific inquiry about why a McDonald’s restaurant remains in the hospital. It could be – as this 2011 Salon article points out – that it’s a consistent source of profits, or that the fast-food giant has a locked-in lease on the site.

The report emphasizes there’s strength in numbers for a movement toward healthier hospital food. That’s being echoed in San Diego. This past weekend, a “Food Matters” event at Balboa Park was held, aimed at training clinicians about our food system. The trend is being embraced in health care settings across the county.

By the end of 2013, JuliAnna Arnett, the San Diego Healthy Food in Health Care regional organizer anticipates that all San Diego County hospitals will have enrolled in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative and more than a third will have adopted the Health Care Without Harm Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, the first step in the California Health Food in Health Care program.

That means more sick patients and the staff that treat them will be fueled on healthy food.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her clare@leschin-hoar.com.

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