by Bridget May, MA, RDN
Product Executive, Contract Services

As an executive in the hospital food services industry, I’ve had many folks tell me they are having a difficult time wrapping their heads around the “plant-forward” movement. Is it vegan? Vegetarian? Flexitarian? There are those who believe plant-based eating is just the latest catch phrase of the millennial generation. However, all age groups including baby boomers and Gen Xers are interested in learning more before turning plant-forward in search of a healthy body and healthy environment.

The plant-forward movement emphasizes a wide variety of plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, pulses, nuts and plant-based beverages, while still including meat. It’s not a fad but a conscious decision by individuals to live a healthier lifestyle, promote a more efficient use of resources and be mindful of the environmental impact of how they eat. Health care food service professionals can satisfy this appetite, especially when they know what’s motivating the people behind the movement.

The environmental case for a plant-forward diet

The plant-forward movement posits that eating smaller portions of meat and fish and following a diet predominantly comprised of fruit, vegetables and whole grains can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by cutting down on agricultural land use for cattle.

About 30% of the world’s land surface is used for animal agriculture. Studies indicates 55% of the world’s crops find its way to human stomachs and approximately 36% is used as animal feed. The conversion process of feed calories to edible calories is inefficient. For example, when 100 calories of feed are consumed by a dairy cow, only 40% of those calories are returned in milk calories (40 calories).The table below describes the inefficiency of calorie and protein production from animal feed.

Fortunately, a diet doesn’t have to be absent all animal products to reduce its impact on the environment — it just has to be reduced, and we need only look to other countries to see this as a viable choice: Americans consume an estimated 200 pounds of meat per year, while the rest of the world averages 75 pounds of meat per year per person.

Additionally, studies have shown plant-forward diets can reduce freshwater usage. An estimated 70% of our global freshwater supply goes directly to animal agriculture. By avoiding meat, individuals who follow plant-based diets tend to create a smaller environmental impact and a smaller carbon footprint.

A healthy alternative

When developing countries assume a western diet that reflects high meat and low plant intake – a sign of wealth and refinement – the incidence of chronic diseases increases along with prevalence of this “sophisticated” diet. Research shows following a plant-forward diet or at least covering half of your plate with fruits and vegetables reduces the odds of getting heart disease, high cholesterol, certain cancers, high blood pressure and improves bone health and weight management.

Recipe for success

So, how should a health care food service operation react to this movement? The distribution and availability of plant-forward products in the retail market are miles ahead of the non-commercial food service segment. The general public has easy access to many plant-based products at their nearest grocery store, but not when ordering from a hospital menu, leaving patients with a plant-forward palate frustrated.

To meet the increasing demand, food service professionals should reach out to their GPO for possible solutions, consider alternative sources such as partnering with local restaurateurs who excel in plant-forward offerings, or procuring products from local retailers and markets to access products through their distribution channels. 

Group purchasing organizations are opening doors for health care food service to plant-forward manufacturers who experience limited visibility or access to non-commercial food service distribution. By aggregating member purchase volumes, a GPO can be instrumental in bringing those sought-after products to the attention of broad line distribution. 

When food service professionals begin ordering plant-forward products from their suppliers or through their GPO, they place pressure on manufacturers to produce plant-forward products for the non-commercial food service industry. Simply by ordering plant-forward products, food service professionals create an opportunity for manufacturers to increase sales by leveraging their already heavily marketed retail items. At the same time, food service professionals employ the pull-through strategy of “if they feed it to me at the hospital, then I should eat it at home.” 

But outsourcing is not the only approach. Health care food service professionals should also leverage the talent of their chefs, dietitians and culinarians to create their own plant-forward menu options on site. In my experience, those items often far outshine the procured products. There is a cornucopia of solutions for the creative and determined food service professional.

In a world of finite resources, taking a plant-forward approach to eating can result in better health and a healthier planet. And science indicates the plant-based diet can play a role in preserving our planet and future populations. Maybe those millennials are on to something.

About the author. Bridget May coordinates member activities and communications, supplier communications and value-added programs for the Vizient Food Program. With 40 years of health care food service industry experience, she joined the company in 1998 and has held various roles in the food program including contracting and member services. Prior to joining Vizient, she held various roles in health care food service management as well clinical care. May, a registered dietitian nutritionist, is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Published: November 18, 2019