Given the scientific data on the benefits of a plant-based diet in managing, preventing and reversing medical conditions, you would expect vegan meals to be easily available in healthcare facilities. In reality, persuading hospitals to remove animal products from the menu is still a challenge. However, some committed doctors and pioneering manufacturers are now bringing plant-based hospital food into the mainstream.
We know of just one fully plant-based hospital, the Hayek in Beirut, Lebanon, which decided in March 2021 to serve exclusively vegan food. It shared the reasons in a strongly worded statement: “Our patients will no longer wake up from surgery to be greeted with ham, cheese, milk, and eggs. The very foods that may have contributed to their health problems in the first place. When the World Health Organisation classifies processed meat as a group 1A carcinogen, the same as tobacco, and red meat as group 2A carcinogenic, then serving meat in a hospital is like serving cigarettes in a hospital.”
In the US and UK, plant-based health advocates are hoping this will be part of a trend for better access to healthy plant-based food. And a significant success in New York suggests that health institutions are starting to listen. In October 2022 New York public hospitals announced that they will serve plant-based lunches as the default option. The pilot scheme, operating across eleven hospitals, means vegan meals will be the standard lunchtime offering. Animal products will be available on request.
The transition was facilitated by the Greener by Default initiative from the Better Food Foundation. The plant-based campaign group has already helped 50 institutions including universities, NGOs and companies switch to vegan meals by default.
Jennifer Channin, Executive Director of the Better Food Foundation believes that defaults are one of the most promising ways to change how people eat: “If folks don’t specifically request meat or dairy, they get a plant-based meal. Patients are presented first with a menu of recommended plant-based specials. If they don’t want those specials, they’re then given other options. Plant-based is currently the default lunchtime menu and there are plans to introduce it at dinnertime too.”
Catering in New York public hospitals is provided by Sodexo, one of the world’s biggest foodservice companies. The Better Food Foundation is also working with Sodexo on a similar plant-based default pilot at three university dining halls. Jennifer Channin says the transition has been met with enthusiasm: “The hospitals have been supportive because improving the health of patients is obviously one of their highest priorities. Though still in the pilot phase, the change has made ripples throughout the hospitals’ catering services. Our team has been working with the hospital chefs, helping them choose recipes for this pilot, and helping foodservice administrators communicate their new plants-by-default offerings.”
She says despite some initial scepticism the pilot has been met with approval: “Institutions expect plant-based meals to be unpopular, so getting leaders to agree to a pilot is a first step. But the move resulted in a 95% approval rating even though fewer than 1% of patients were vegetarian or vegan. This shows that plant-based meals are widely accepted and popular when they become the norm.”
She hopes that this will be the start of a domino effect, with more hospitals offering plant-based meals as the norm: “Our Greener by Default team has lots of resources to help hospital administrators and health professionals make these changes. We know that the conventional Western diet, heavy on meat and dairy, is a major contributor to serious health problems. This is the case in New York City where diet-related conditions like heart disease are leading causes of death. That’s why it is urgent to send a different message to patients about what kinds of diets are the norm.”
Dr Shireen Kassam is a leading British plant-based nutrition advocate and the founder of Plant Based Health Professional UK. She is a consultant haematologist at King’s College Hospital, London, and a visiting professor of plant-based nutrition at Winchester University. She has been vegan since 2013 and is working to make plant-based meals more available and popular for both patients and staff.
Dr Kassam says raising awareness amongst health professionals is crucial: “We’re focusing on educating health professionals around the country, with talks, webinars, and downloadable information to share with patients. At King’s we have quite an extensive vegan menu, but we need to support staff and patients to make changes. We’ve been working on the new inpatient menu, which changes every six months, and I hope that by the next change we’ll have removed processed red meat.
We know that people eating a plant-based diet have significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, and use less medications. We should be teaching people when they’re in hospital, how to eat well. We need to support people to make better choices and give them the tools to eat better with their families and communities.”
Transitioning away from traditional meat-based meals has not been without challenges. One initiative was Meatless Mondays during the international No Meat May campaign: “Removing processed red meat as a minimum made sense given that it is considered a group 1 carcinogen but getting people to join in proved difficult. During May some staff satisfied meat cravings with trips to on-site retail chains. For patient meals, nutritionists do have a say, but many still consider meat a good source of protein and calories and are reluctant to remove familiar and popular dishes from the menu.”
The conversation became easier when the NHS committed to Net Zero. King’s has now committed to moving to a plant-based food environment and removing processed red meat from its menus. Its main caterers, MediRest and Compass have also committed to reducing meat-based meals. UK hospitals are now more likely to have an extensive vegan menu, such as this one at Nottingham University Hospitals.
Dr Kassam believes one way forward is for health professionals and plant-based businesses to work together to make plant-based food a more desirable choice: “It would be great if businesses could pitch to hospital catering managers with products and recipe ideas. Or offer a plant-based vending machine for out of hours catering. Hillingdon Hospital is trying a vegan vending machine and we need more trials to find out what sells well. We also need more deals for the NHS to make these items price competitive, so we can show that plant-based food is tasty, nutritious and good value for everyone.”