Climate Change and Food Service

Health Care Without Harm recognizes the intimate connection between our food system and climate change. Climate change is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, and one that the health care sector has a vested interest in addressing. We support hospitals in mitigating the effects of climate change by helping them move towards a more sustainable food service. Mitigation strategies implemented within food service operations, including changing purchasing practices, can contribute a great deal to facility-wide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that “warming of the climate is unequivocal,” and that human activity has very likely been the driving force in that change over the past 50 years. This report not only reflects the mounting evidence that the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases has already played a role in raising the average surface temperature of the Earth. It shifted the debate from whether climate change is a human-caused phenomenon to what we should be doing to address it.

Extreme weather events, increase in infectious disease, decrease in fresh water supplies and health-related issues due to an increase in air pollution are all projected impacts of climate change. As we well know, these factors place increasing strain on public and environmental health. While mitigating climate change requires action on many levels, and the health care sector’s response requires a multi-faceted approach, we believe that food service has a crucial role to play.

Major shifts in the U.S. food system in the last century negatively impact human and ecological health. While total farm acreage has declined, farm size has increased and is more focused on the intensive production of a single crop or animal. This industrialized system relies on massive inputs of petroleum-based resources in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fuel for farm operations, processing and transportation – making the food system a huge contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

How food is produced, in addition to how it is transported, are the most important considerations when making climate-oriented decisions about food procurement. In the U.S., the typical food item now travels from 1,500 to 2,400 miles from farm to plate. Agriculture and food account for up to 30% of the goods transported on our roads.

We also know that not all food groups have the same impact on GHG emissions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the livestock sector, particularly beef and dairy production, generates close to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Learn more here about how hospitals can positively influence the climate change impacts of our food system through the power of their purchasing dollar.

For a more complete picture of HCWH’s climate and health campaign and broader efforts to work within the health care sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, visit our Climate and Health pages.