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Area Hospitals Strive For Healthier, Locally-Grown Food

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Area hospitals are making an effort to serve patients healthier, locally grown food
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Area hospitals are making an effort to serve patients healthier, locally grown food

Chef Cheryl Beckwith smiles as she describes today's special.

"The chicken that we use is reduced antibiotics. The broccoli is a fresh broccoli from our produce purveyor. We steam that at the last minute and keep it al dente, or to the tooth," she says. 

With a refrigerator full of local produce and sustainable seafood, Beckwith's kitchen has a lot in common with the hip and healthy restaurants cropping up across the region. But people aren't lining up to eat her food. Most of the time, they're lying down.

Beckwith is associate director of food production at Inova Fairfax hospital in Virginia, and she says she's worked hard over the past few years to increase the amount of fresh, local food at the hospital.

"It's the right thing to do for our environment, for our patients, and for our employees. Fresh and local is healthier," she says.

In fact, Louise Mitchell, sustainable foods program manager of Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment and an organizer with the national group Health Care Without Harm, says many area hospitals are joining the sustainable food movement.

"We have over 40 hospitals at least that are now purchasing local foods from farmers. And we have at least five hospitals that are purchasing sustainable meat and poultry on a regular basis," she says. In addition, she says, 16 hospitals in Maryland have farmers markets or farm stands on their campuses, and several nursing homes have gardens on their grounds.

"Hospitals are starting to realize the changes that have happened in our food system," she says. "And there are lots of practices that are linked to chronic disease and obesity. Hospitals have realized that they have a responsibility to change their food purchasing practices."

Mitchell says some hospitals are even trying to influence the industry through their purchasing power. "Because hospitals purchase such a large volume of food, they have a very important role to play in changing the food system," she says.

Patient Aurelio Garcia says he can taste the difference. He was expecting chicken that tasted like rubber, with a side of limp vegetables. But he's pleasantly surprised.

"It tastes good. Not like hospital food," he says. Plus, he says, it's healthy - which is a good thing for a hospital.

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