The Power of “EdMed”

By Lucia Sayre and Emma Sirois, Health Care Without Harm on July 16, 2015

This collaboration leverages the purchasing power and moral authority of hospitals, schools and universities to drive increased health and sustainability in the food supply chain.

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A growing body of scientific data demonstrates the serious health and environmental costs of our industrialized, globalized food system. This system contributes to: increasing rates of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; widespread exposure to chemicals with reproductive, developmental or other toxicities; foodborne illness; air and groundwater contamination; impaired aquatic systems and climate change; and high levels of consumption of nutritionally depleted foods.

The health care sector is increasingly recognizing the complex interconnections betweenthe food system and public health, including understanding its role in making healthy and sustainable food a central part of a prevention-based health care agenda. As anchor institutions, hospitals have the potential to improve public and environmental health and strengthen the economic vitality of their local communities. They are rooted in place, hold significant investments in real estate and social capital, are among the largest employers in their communities, and are often explicitly oriented toward supporting community health goals in alignment with their healing mission. Due to their significant purchasing power and trusted role as authorities on health and wellness, hospitals have an important opportunity not only to provide better food for patients, staff and visitors, but to transform the food system toward greater health and sustainability.

But they are not the only anchors in the neighborhood. Hospitals are beginning to partner with other institutions in their communities, namely K-12 public schools and universities, using their collective purchasing power and political influence to build a healthier food system through Health Care Without Harm’s “EdMed” collaboration.

shutterstock_91833521Engaging institutional buyers and increasing the demand for fresh, healthy food is fundamental to scaling up sustainable, regional food systems in a way that isolated interventions such as grocery store conversions and farmers markets cannot. Developing strong market channels for local growers can help support those local growers and economies, preserve local agricultural lands, increase community access to healthier foods and provide new business opportunities. Although differences exist among the sectors in procurement processes and budgets, there are important similarities that make collaboration possible, including aligned criteria for what “sustainable” and “healthy” mean, large volume demand for particular products, similar distribution channels in many regions across the country and a strong commitment to a healthy food system now and into the future.

Together, these sectors can engage the hearts and minds of community members, young people, clinicians, teachers and policymakers to better understand the importance of a healthy food system and how we can get there. They can speak for the vulnerable, the underserved, our youth and our future. This powerful, united voice can help move policy on important food and health issues such as the misuse of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture—a known contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections that take tens of thousands of human lives each year and add heavily to our national health care costs.

Health Care Without Harm and its key partners in the public school (School Food FOCUS) and university (Real Food Challenge) sectors are starting to build this cross-sector collaboration through EdMed. Here’s an introduction to these two vital organizations:

School Food FOCUS (www.schoolfoodfocus.org), a program of Public Health Solutions, is a national collaborative that leverages the knowledge and procurement power of 43 large school districts across the country that collectively represent more than 4.9 million children. FOCUS’ mission is to make school meals nationwide more healthful, regionally sourced and sustainably produced while transforming food systems to support students’ academic achievement and lifelong health.

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The Real Food Challenge (www.realfoodchallenge.org) leverages the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair and green food system. Its primary campaign is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local/community-based fare, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what it calls “real food”—by 2020. It maintains a national network of student food activists—providing opportunities for networking, learning and leadership development for thousands of emerging leaders.

We see this collaboration as fertile ground for building healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems and encourage you to consider what role you can play in your hospital or community to build partnerships across these sectors. For ideas, inspiration and support, join us at www.healthyfoodinhealthcare.org.