Think about what you are going to eat today and ask yourself: How has this food been produced? Where was it produced and how has it arrived on your plate? How much land, water, and energy was needed to produce it, and who profited from it?
It is important that we understand the food we consume, and what factors influence our eating patterns; food is connected to everything and has a major role to play in sustainability. Food systems are complicated: they include many different activities and a wide range of actors.
There are still many challenges ahead for food that can be addressed with connected and coherent food and food waste policies, more funding for food activities to ensure food security, and education and raising awareness. We know that people’s diets need to be improved, but there is no clear consensus on how we will do it, and who should be responsible.
On December 10th in London, at the Medact – Healthy planet, better world conference, numerous hospitals and NHS Trusts presented initiatives in the workshop: Moving towards more sustainable food systems: How can the health community play a part? demonstrating positive steps being taken in UK to improve the environment and public health:
- Establishing roundtables: 3 - 4 patients and a member of staff can eat together so that mealtimes are more enjoyable and assistance is readily available. Meal plans are tailored to fit individual needs, considering any dietary requirements or dislikes.
- Providing cooking classes for both patients and visitors in order to help them with treatments and to follow a healthy diet once they are discharged - this could reduce patients’ subsequent reliance on dietary supplements. Some hospitals also provide food bank vouchers to their patients (mainly those living in low-income areas) enabling them to buy healthy food products and ingredients.
- Engaging health professionals in the development of hospital canteen menus so healthier ingredients are served to patients, staff, and visitors. Involving health professionals in decision-making processes regarding issues that affect everybody at the facility (such as food provision) is an example of the holistic and rounded approach being taken by multiple NHS Trusts.
- Creating of a network of food growing gardens at the NHS in Lambeth, where everyone is welcome to learn how to grow food. This initiative also enables hospital-based nutritionists and dieticians to work alongside patients, providing them with informal advice on diet and nutrition.
- Implementing an extensive mixed recycling scheme in the University Hospital of Birmingham provides a simple but effective way for patients, staff, and visitors to become more environmentally friendly by recycling waste (such as coffee cups, newspapers, sandwich packets, envelopes, light bulbs, old uniforms, and plastic bottles). This has been possible thanks to the introduction of around 600 mixed recycling bins across the hospital site, and a commitment from staff, patients, volunteers, and visitors to recycle.
We cannot ignore local solutions if we want to meet global targets both directly and indirectly connected to sustainable and healthy food. If we are to achieve global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), local initiatives are crucial in:
- Ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture (SDG 2)
- Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages (SDG 3)
- Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (SDG 6)
- Halving global food waste (SDG 12.3)
- Combating climate change (SDG 13)
- Protecting, restoring, and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial and marine ecosystems (SDGs 14 & 15)
Food systems have a major influence on climate change and are second only to fossil fuels in terms of their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and water scarcity. Climate change is an immediate threat to public health and the environment and by tackling emissions from food production and the environmental impact of food systems, we can go some way towards mitigating climate change. We need to start taking action to improve the situation and create partnerships on a local and global level to share knowledge and experience and work towards a more sustainable future.
The health sector can and should play a leading role in the provision and promotion of sustainable and healthy food by procuring sustainably and environmentally friendly produce and serving healthy meals to patients, visitors, and staff. Priority should be given to:
- Serving more plant-based foods instead of energy-dense and highly processed and packaged products
- Encouraging patients and visitors to prepare more healthy and sustainable food at home
- Ensuring better communication at all levels of food production and provision
- Considering new technologies and practices in food ordering, presentation, and delivery methods
- Preventing and exploring alternatives to decrease food waste at healthcare facilities
If we can mobilise the economic, political, and ethical influence of the healthcare sector concerning promotion of sustainable and healthy food in the community, then we can start to work towards a more ecologically sustainable, equitable, and healthy world.
Paola Hernández, HCWH Europe Food Project Officer
Preview image: Miia Sample via Flickr cc