Those who most need to eat fruits and vegetables may get a shot in the arm.

Hospitals and other health care facilities with foodservice functions may put an increasing emphasis on use of fresh fruits and vegetables now that the American Medical Association has come out in favor of “sustainable foods” within the health care food supply chain.

The AMA, in its Sustainable Food Policy in mid-June recommended that the health care food supply chain turn to “sustainable food” when possible.

The AMA began contemplating the move in 2008 when its board of directors commissioned a study on the subject.

To AMA, the Chicago-based organization that represents the nation’s medical community, sustainable foods have a lot to do with fresh fruits and vegetables.

AMA’s council on science and health wrote that local and sustainable foods “reduce the use of fuel, decrease the need for packaging and resultant waste disposal, preserve farmland … [and] the related reduced fuel emissions contribute to cleaner air and in turn, lower the incidence of asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.”

The AMA recommendation concludes: “Healthy diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars, but they also support environmental sustainability, economic viability, and human dignity and justice. Unhealthy food systems are not sustainable, and contribute to the very health problems the health care system is trying to solve — at extraordinary costs both economically and in terms of quality of life.”

AMA deserves credit for trying to spark some fresh thinking on where food is sourced and looking at new suppliers, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications at United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“Anything that tries to encourage sustainable practices is a good thing,” Gilmer said. “Still, sustainability is something of a moving target.”

United’s work on the Center for Global Produce Sustainability, backed by $1 million in funds from Bayer, is just getting underway, and that will help guide the fresh produce industry’s viewpoint on sustainability, he said.

AMA is packaging its support for sustainable agriculture under its alliance with Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of more than 470 organizations in 50 nations.

Health Care Without Harm advocates for a sustainable food system. Its marketing campaign urges health care foodservice operators to:

  • Start a conversation about “healthy food” within their organizations.

  • Contract with distributors that support “healthy food.”

  • Buy organic produce, as well as foods certified by groups like Food Alliance, Protected Harvest and Fair Trade, among others.

  • Buy food from local producers.

  • For cafeterias, become a fast food-free zone.

  • Limit vending machines and replace unhealthy snacks with more healthful choices.

  • Host a farmers market on the hospital grounds.

In addition to targeting foodservice operators at hospitals and health care facilities, the AMA aims for its message to support practices and policies at medical schools, an effort the groups says will inform a new generation of doctors.

The report calls local produce “usually the most sustainable, being generally less resource intensive and less vulnerable to contamination, while providing fresher and less processed food and fostering healthier relationships between farmers and consumers.”

The report notes, however, that eating conventional fruits and vegetables instead of animal products still improves the sustainability of the food system.

AMA defines a sustainable food system as one that promotes ecology, social values, health and economic vitality. The AMA said that healthy diets that are rich in fruits and vegetables limit the depletion of “nonrenewable resources; air, water, and soil pollution; the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and the risk of food contamination.”

When it comes to patients’ health, Gilmer said whether a health care foodservice operator sources local, organic or conventional produce is not the most important aspect.

“Going local is commendable, but health care facilities need to be sure to source a wide variety of fruits and vegetables,” Gilmer said. “A health care provider shouldn’t deny a patient fruits and vegetables that don’t happen to be available locally.”