How one program is working to make Pennsylvania healthier, through food

Good Food, Healthy Hospitals members commit to serving foods across several avenues in their foodservice operation.
Healthy food
Good Food, Healthy Hospitals was started in 2014. | Photo: Shutterstock.

When a Philadelphia hospital decides to enroll in the Good Food, Healthy Hospitals program, they make a commitment to follow the program's foodservice guidelines which include an effort to serve and promote healthier foods.

And it's not a one-size-fits-all program. Each foodservice operation may have different needs or be starting their journey from a different point.

“The beauty of the program is that we meet the foodservice where they are and together, we look at where there are gaps, and where we can help them and how they can progress. And then we want to recognize them for the good work that they're doing,” said Shelley Chamberlain, healthy food and health care specialist with the Good Food, Healthy Hospital initiative.

The first step, after the foodservice operation signs on to the commitment, is to find a baseline based on the guidelines within the program’s standards.

The program has six ranks, ranging from Pledge Signatory to Platinum which means an operation has implemented all five of the initiative’s standards. The standards include targeting food served throughout the hospital in patient meals, cafeteria service, catering and vending as well as in purchasing plans.

Some strategies that the program uses, according to Chamberlain, are increasing fruit and vegetable content, having more nutritionally dense foods, offering plant-forward options and sourcing local foods.

A big goal behind the program is to shift away from the negative perception surrounding hospital food.

“I call all of our participants good food leaders and I think— well I know— that they are shifting the perception of what hospital food is, setting examples for what it can be,” said Chamberlain.

Here’s a look at how the program started and the work it is doing to make Philadelphia healthier, through food.

The program's origins

Good Food, Healthy Hospitals got its start in 2014. It was launched by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, but about two years ago, the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) got involved.

Robert Shipp, HAP’s vice president of population health and clinical affairs, noted that the goal was to expand the program beyond Southeastern Pennsylvania and throughout the rest of the state.

“Our mission is a healthy Pennsylvania so it just kind of naturally aligned with a lot of the stuff that we do and a lot of stuff that we do with our members,” said Shipp.

The program came from seed money provided by the city of Philadelphia. Chamberlain noted that at the time, the city was experiencing high rates of diet-related chronic diseases and as such the city adopted nutrition standards.

“And when they were doing that, they were working through a CDC grant. There happened to be some money in that grant,” said Chamberlain. “And so, they thought what is the next natural partner that we should reach out to and that was some of the anchor institutions, the healthcare institutions in the city. So that's kind of how it got started in Philly.”

Then in 2018, the team applied for a statewide grant through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to take the program statewide.

“When HAP joined the team in 2021 It really helped with networking," noted Chamberlain. As Shipp mentioned , it aligned with their mission and took the program farther.

Increasing healthier foods

Now, 51 hospitals throughout 26 counties participate in the program. The initiative has several strategies for accomplishing its goals, starting with purchasing.

“What is coming in the door, what are you purchasing? What are you sourcing, working with vendors, etc.,” said Chamberlain.

The next strategy involves how hospitals are promoting their foods—the team looks at all aspects from pricing to how products are placed, to determine if there are better ways to promote healthy eating.

“So, are healthier choices at eye level? When you walk up to a salad bar do you see all the fresh veggies, the lettuces and the fresh vegetables first and all those bright colors first, and then you kind of go down the line to the items that you can still add to your salad but are not as healthy,” said Chamberlain.

Another example is beverage options—Chamberlain noted that waters, seltzers and 100% fruit juices should be displayed at the top while sodas and more indulgent items are placed near the bottom.

In addition, the team will work on signage, promoting healthy options as well as local choices. Shipp noted that one aspect of the program that seems to resonate with its participants is the community focus through supporting local suppliers.

“That's one of the things that I found value in this program because hospitals, they're so community oriented, and this way they get to give back to the community. They get the opportunity to work with those local providers,” he said.

Helping with workforce challenges and other successes

One more benefit to the program that may not be as obvious, is its help with workforce woes. Shipp noted that a healthy variety of options can do wonders for morale.

“So, I think just having that variety helps with the staff and the staff satisfaction as well,” he said. “That's meeting the patient, meeting the staff where they were, it's promoting that health environment.”

One other success the program has seen as of late is increasing healthy vending and grab-and-go choices at hospitals.

Shipp was visiting a Good Food, Healthy Hospital location when he noticed a store that functioned almost like a gift shop, but instead it offered healthy grab-and-go options.

“And you could walk in, the visitors could, the staff could, and there were all sorts of selections so I think I had sliced pickles that were healthy, like it was a really neat thing that you typically won't expect to get in a regular hospital that's not fully participating,” he said.

Chamberlain noted that many new hospitals achieved healthy vending this year, which was one of the team’s goals.

Vision for the future

While the program works to ensure hospitals are serving healthy food, one question Shipp posed is what happens after patients leave the hospital, or after employees clock out for the day. In the future, the team hopes to engage in outreach activities.

“Where do we go with the next evolution of this would be to, you know, work with screening of patients and try to determine who needs these services beyond here, who is food insecure and those sorts of things, and then be able to make those connections,” said Shipp.

Chamberlain noted the goals of the program remain the same—to help the community and inspire others to do the same.

“Starting with these good food leaders and inspiring others in the community, you know, or other organizations, it's really doable,” she said. “And these good food choices and options can be spread farther than the walls of the hospital.”



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