A long-term vision for organic meals in healthcare facilities

Blog by Paola Hernández Olivan, Food Projects and Policy Officer

I’ve previously written about what organic means - fewer pesticides, no artificial colours and preservatives, free range, no GM ingredients, and no routine use of antibiotics. There are many varied reasons for choosing organic products ranging from environmental to nutritional benefits.

The foods we choose can have far-reaching consequences, so even switching to just one organic product can contribute to a better global food system. The transition to organic and quality food procurement in healthcare facilities, however, remains challenging.


When looking to include organic produce in your procurement tenders, it is first necessary to understand which organic products can be supplied in sufficient quantity to meet demand. Relevant stakeholders must then:

  • Determine a minimum percentage of seasonal and organic foods as award criteria. The Food for Life Served Here Handbook for Hospitals establishes a scoring system for sourcing environmentally-friendly and ethical food by assigning points for the percentage of organic purchased silver: 5%, gold: 15% (which must include at least one animal product),
  • Conduct market research and/or establish dialogues with other potential bidders. Healthcare facilities’ procurement processes should consider local, small, and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and offer opportunities to divide contracts and define requirements that even SMEs and new businesses will be able to meet.

When considering the transition to providing more organic meals there are important questions concerning the constitution of a meal plan (according to the age and number of guests), cost calculation, and the kitchen management. Training, education, and information on organic food in catering are therefore key elements to successfully adding organic produce to procurement strategies, and should be seen as an opportunity to further change attitudes, processes, routines, and supply chains.

The European healthcare sector is moving forward to more organic menus

  • Austria – One of the Vienna Hospital Association’s objectives is for 30% of food served in hospitals to be organic and pesticide-free food products
  • Denmark - At the Gentofte and Herlev Hospitals up to 80% of food products are organic and seasonally produced in Denmark.
  • France - A weekly organic dish is offered to staff at the Hospital Center of Le Mans, whilst a complete organic menu is proposed for patients’ Sunday lunch.
  • Italy - The Meyer Children’s Hospital offers meals which are homemade style, cooked from scratch using local, organic, and seasonal fruits, vegetables, oil, and meat. Organic food is particularly important for neonates and infants, as it limits exposure to harmful endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals (EDCs) at a critical time of development.
  • Spain – As part of a pilot experience at the Regional University Hospital of Malaga, patients are served organic dishes on the first day of their hospital stay.
  • United Kingdom - Approximately 10% of the Royal Brompton Hospital’s food purchases are organic – all milk and yoghurt is 100% organic from a local farm and organic meat is on the menu at least once a week. 

The main barrier to procuring organic products is still price.

All these case studies and more can be found in our healthy & sustainable food publications.

Despite these successful examples, the main barrier to procuring organic products is still price. How can we meet the rising demand from patients, staff, and visitors for high-quality and healthy food and drink products whilst fulfilling higher environmental standards in the healthcare sector? A life-cycle costing methodology that integrates qualitative, environmental, and social aspects into the contracts such as biodiversity, higher animal welfare standards, reduced health risks for farmers from pesticides, and rural development through generating additional farm employment for example should help determine the most economically advantageous tender (MEAT).

Some studies show a large cost difference between organic and conventional food products that depends on multiple factors such as: product type, location, season, etc. We have to bear in mind the whole cycle though and the potential savings that hospitals can make through other initiatives such as reducing the quantity of more expensive items e.g. meat and fish, whilst encouraging the consumption of more plant-based menus.

Offering more plant-based menus is one of the proposed criteria in the upcoming Green Public Procurement criteria on food and catering services, which also establishes greater ambition for the total purchase of organic products for catering services and vending machines.

Offering more plant-based menus is one of the proposed criteria in the upcoming Green Public Procurement criteria on food and catering services.

These trends mark out our food future, and along with everyone else, hospitals and healthcare facilities will also need to (re)adapt. This issue is firstly a political decision that may be accompanied time-bound targets (e.g. minimum proportion of organic food to be served in public canteens by a specific year). The recently approved Agriculture and Food Act in France is an example of this: by 2022 all public canteens, including hospitals, will have to serve 50% of sustainable products, 20% of which will be organic. This also requires collaboration with other stakeholders, such as producers and processors to find a balance between local demand and supply, and increase opportunities for small suppliers.

Good things can happen when you increase organic produce in your life, what are your plans for the future?

You can find out more with the Soil Association’s Organic your September - access exclusive organic offers, find recipes, top tips, mythbusters and more, and discover why you should choose organic.