As the shift in food consciousness reaches into the medical field, future generations may someday have no frame of reference for punch lines about unpalatable, unidentifiable hospital food.
At Mills-Peninsula Medical Center's Atrium Cafe in Burlingame, organic buckwheat pasta, quinoa and locally sourced zucchini (when it's in season) are all on a menu that previously offered a selection of fried and artificially preserved foods.
"We even have one couple from the neighborhood that comes in for Sunday brunch because they just think the food is good," said Jannelly Sussman, the hospital's retail and banquet manager.
The hospital's current building, constructed in 2010, was built to be an eco-friendly institution, and it composts all the way down to the utensils used, said Craig Branting, the hospital's head of Environmental Health and Safety.
Healthier, fresher foods are part of the mission, and Sussman works with California-based small- and medium-size farms to acquire food for the cafe.
The patients' menus underwent analysis also, and a team of nurses, advisers and administrators, along with Sussman, helped put together a menu of in-room dining options to cater to every health requirement and whim.
"I think it's just the right thing to do," Sussman said. "Mills-Peninsula wants to encourage whole-body wellness. If people exercise and eat well, they'll have lower rates of cardiac disease and diabetes. We have to set the example."
Other hospitals are making a shift as well. Sussman said she talks regularly with administrators at UC San Francisco Medical Center about what they're doing.
It's happening nationally, too: Rex Hospital in North Carolina recently revamped its menu and changed its patient meals to room-service-style deliveries.
Food could also play a role in the bottom line of the hospital. In 2012, Medicare, as part of the new health care mandate, began incorporating patient feedback ratings into its formula to determine how much to pay individual hospitals. Medicare now withholds 1 percent of what used to be distributed among all hospitals, and that money is to be distributed to hospitals based in part on their patient satisfaction ratings.
Sussman has been with the medical center's parent company, Sutter Health, for 10 years, and she said the hospital has always gotten feedback from surveys given to patients about their perception of the hospital's quality of care. And while food isn't specifically addressed in the official exit surveys, setting a higher standard for fresh food may well have an effect on how a patient reports his or her overall experience.
Or perhaps simply giving patients the option to eat healthy will be enough to maintain satisfaction. Patients and visitors can still find a vending machine at the medical center, maybe even one with a Snickers bar for sale.
"We don't want to be a food police," Sussman said. "Our goal is to present people with information and choices."
Other eco-friendly measures, such as using compostable food containers, also may not contribute directly to an increase in patient satisfaction, but members of the hospital team think it's about more than just instant gratification and ratings boosts.
"It's more cost-effective in the longer term," Branting said. "Our compostable containers are more expensive than Styrofoam, but they don't have nearly the environmental impact, because they're decomposable. We have to look beyond the boundaries of the hospital."