Food at UC Davis Children's Hospital healthiest among pediatric hospitals statewide, study finds

Posted Dec. 7, 2011

Food and Nutrition employees © UC Regents
UC Davis Health System Food and Nutrition Services employees work diligently to keep the hospital cafeteria fare appealing and healthy. From left to right are Fred Bailey, Brittany Ragster, Marty Gothard and Wendi Vela.

A study of the healthiness of food offered to patients, staff and visitors at California's children's hospitals has found that the cafeteria for UC Davis Children's Hospital scored highest among all of the 14 food venues at the 12 major pediatric hospitals in the state.

With researchers scoring the children's hospital food venues on a scale of zero, or least healthy, to 37, or healthiest, UC Davis Children's Hospital received a score of 30. No other hospital received a higher score.

Titled "Assessment of food offerings and marketing strategies in the food-service venues at California children's hospitals," the study was conducted by researchers at UCLA and the RAND Corporation. It is published online this week in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

"We're very proud of what we've been able to accomplish with our cafeteria," said Marty Gothard, manager of the Department of Food and Nutrition Services for UC Davis. "From our cooks and our service staff to our managers, supervisors and dieticians, we are committed to providing good, high-quality and healthy food options to our customers."

"Hospital food typically has a very negative connotation," Gothard said. "We really have made an effort to change that image."

Creating a healthy food environment can help reduce obesity

The researchers evaluated food-service venues in all 12 tertiary-care hospitals that are members of the California Children's Hospital Association, which includes University of California hospitals and private nonprofit hospitals.

UC Davis offers health fare. © UC Regents
The cafeteria at UC Davis Medical Center offers many healthy options, including a diverse salad bar.

The study notes that children's hospitals represent locations with great potential for influencing what people eat. Marketing practices — such as pricing, food placement and signage — can change the way hospital staff and visitors eat. The quality of the "food environment" is linked to high rates of childhood obesity, which is epidemic in the state and nation.

"As health professionals, we understand the connection between healthy eating and good health, and our hospitals should be role models in this regard," said Lenard Lesser, lead study author and a physician in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program in the Department of Family Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

"Unfortunately, the food in many hospitals is no better — and in some cases worse — than what you would find in a fast food restaurant," Lesser said.

The study used a modified version of a tool called the Nutrition Environment Measures Scale for Restaurants (NEMS-R), adjusted for use in cafeterias, the (NEMS-C). The 25-item checklist is specifically designed to rate the food offerings in hospital cafeterias, documenting elements of the food environment including pricing, availability of vegetables, nutrition labeling, combo promotions and healthy beverage items.

Helping customers make well-informed decisions

UC Davis Children's Hospital scored highly for offering and clearly labeling a wide variety of healthy options, including foods that are low-fat, high-fiber and heart healthy. The study was conducted before the October 2010 opening of a major addition to UC Davis Medical Center, which includes a new, state-of-the-art cafeteria.

About UC Davis Children's Hospital

UC Davis Children's Hospital is the Sacramento region's only nationally ranked, comprehensive hospital for children, serving infants, children, adolescents and young adults with primary, subspecialty and critical care. It includes the Central Valley's only pediatric emergency department and level I pediatric trauma center, which offers the highest level of care for critically ill children.

The 118-bed children's hospital includes the state-of-the-art 49-bed neonatal and 24-bed pediatric intensive care units. With more than 120 physicians in 33 subspecialties, UC Davis Children's Hospital has more than 74,000 clinic and hospital visits and 13,000 emergency department visits each year. For more information, visit

"UC Davis provides its patients, visitors and staff with a wide variety of healthy food options, including fresh fruits and vegetables, entrée salads and whole-grain foods," said Wendi Vela, a registered dietitian and patient services manager for the Department of Food and Nutrition Services. "We make every effort to educate our clients about healthy eating by providing nutrition analysis so that customers can make well-informed decisions about their food choices."

The educational information, made available in the hospital cafeteria, includes which foods contain fewer than 30 percent of calories from fat, which are vegetarian and which are lower in sodium and higher in fiber.

The study found that the overall average score for the 14 hospital food venues was 19.1. Of the total 359 entrees the hospitals served, only 7 percent were classified as healthy, according to the NEMS criteria. And, while nearly all the hospitals offered healthy alternatives such as fruit, fewer than one third had nutrition information at the point-of-sale or signs to promote healthy eating.

In addition to UC Davis Children's Hospital, the researchers surveyed Children's Hospital Central California; Children's Hospital Los Angeles; Children's Hospital of Orange County; Children's Hospital & Research Center at Oakland; Loma Linda University Children's Hospital; Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford; Miller Children's Hospital; Rady Children's Hospital - San Diego; Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA; University Children's Hospital at University of California, Irvine; University of California, San Diego Children's Hospital; University of California, San Francisco Children's Hospital; Children's Center at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento.