Lisa Roberson​It’s not enough to just care for patients inside our facilities. We must think bigger these days—for the good of the patient, community, and our organization. That’s where population health comes in. It has long been a buzzword, but as an industry, we have an opportunity to bring the concept to life. Skilled nursing and long term care facilities can learn from other areas of the health care industry to fully integrate population health programs into their food and nutrition services.

Population health initiatives are an important factor in caring for an entire community, but they also can have a tangible impact on a long term care or skilled nursing facility’s finances by controlling costs, improving outcomes and increasing patient satisfaction scores. Here are four key points to drive success through integrating population health within food and nutrition services.

1. Invest in a sustainable supply chain.

Where our food comes from matters. It matters from a freshness and taste perspective. It matters from a health perspective. And it certainly matters from a sustainability perspective, which recently came to light during COVID when our supply chains were strained.

Food travels an average of 1,500 miles to get from the farm to your plate. That leaves a significant carbon footprint. In all, food production is responsible for a fourth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That is not sustainable.

We need to create a cleaner, greener supply chain. That journey starts with sustainability of logistics, produce sourcing, and packaging. By purchasing locally, long term care facilities can source produce that is picked and eaten at the peak of ripeness, which means it is denser in nutrients and, thus, more nutritious. This leads to a sustainable sourcing model as well as a successful business infrastructure in the community. In addition, diversifying suppliers through both number of sources and social backgrounds has proven to be a successful approach to promote sustainability.

A sustainable supply chain is more than just an environmental initiative or way to promote goodwill in the community. It is a smart business move. It is caring for the population as a whole and creating channels to get the critical resources you need to care for patients.

2. Rethink menus.

Creating healthier populations from a food and nutrition services perspective starts with our first touchpoint—patient dining. We need to create healthy options that foster wellness. That means no antibiotics or growth hormones, while encouraging fresh produce and low-fat proteins. All this needs to be done while maintaining delicious flavors. Menu creation can be the first step in a population health strategy.

One area where I’m seeing significant growth is with plant-based diets. Studies have shown the advantages of a diet rich with plant-based food, including lower abdominal fat, cholesterol, blood sugar, and BMI compared to study participants consuming a diet of predominantly animal protein. And 58 percent of consumers say they want to increase their plant-based protein consumption.

Rethinking our menus and taking particular care to craft dishes focused on fitness can lead to both immediate and long term improvements in patient wellness. It’s about showing them healthier options outside of their current diet. Patient dining is the first opportunity to start that conversation.

3. Think beyond the four walls of your facility.

We have an opportunity to impact community wellness long past a patient’s stay. That means thinking beyond the four walls of the facility and getting facts about nutrition and its impact on wellbeing to the community. The first step of this is to change patient perceptions about healthy eating, which can have a trickledown effect on others in the household.

It can be intimidating trying to cook healthy food. Facilities have an opportunity to teach the community about the benefits of healthy eating and how to bring it to life. Setting up a teaching kitchen with your onsite dietitians or culinary staff can provide confidence for in-home cooks and empower them to live healthier lives. Some hospitals have taken this to the digital space with instructional cooking videos that are featured on social media or local news.

Even armed with the right information, there are barriers to living a healthy lifestyle. Too often underserved communities do not have access to the nutritious food that is critical to establish long term healthy habits. A programmatic approach from the facility can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to entirely come out of your already thin margins. For example, I have seen facilities invest in mobile grocery stores that are funded through grants and community fundraising. These grocery stores-on-wheels provide fresh ingredients to areas that otherwise would not have access to them, helping to eliminate food deserts.

4. Create programs to reduce waste.

Food waste is everywhere in the U.S. with approximately 40 percent of food produced ultimately being wasted. Health care leaders sit in a prime position to make a quantifiable impact on the industry and community. Controlling food waste makes you a better steward of your resources and helps to manage your business in a sustainable way.

While we can’t eliminate food waste entirely, we can minimize it and turn waste into community benefit. Many hospitals partner with local organizations to donate excess food. They set up composting sites to better utilize the existing waste and repurpose that waste through gardens that provide produce for patients. Additionally, being mindful of ingredients and how they are prepared impacts waste. I love to see facilities adopt a “root to stem” strategy to use the entirety of their ingredients instead of throwing out large portions of useable produce.

New technology features can be used to drive waste reduction. Through enhanced analytics, we can better track and record food waste types, amounts, and ultimate destinations (e.g., donation, composting, landfill). Through this data, facilities receive valuable insights to create new strategies to address food waste at the source. Some have been able to decrease their food waste by nearly 50 percent by utilizing technology to make better, more informed decisions.

Food and nutrition services can drive a new, healthier perspective for the community because it takes more than just a clinical approach to care for a population. The foodservice team plays an important role in supporting and assisting long term care and skilled nursing facilities to establish and expand population health programs that have many far reaching and sustained benefits for patients and communities.

Lisa Roberson, RDN, LD, is national director of wellness & sustainability at Morrison Healthcare. She is a registered dietitian with 20 plus years of experience in nutrition leadership.