In many ways Lucia Sayre is your typical Berkeley resident: She has a fondness for farmers’ markets, growing her own greens, and eating local foods.

As director of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group that promotes public health policies, she wants to do more than make a difference at her dinner table. Her mandate: To help local hospitals purchase, prepare, and serve food to patients and employees that is better for them and the environment.

Improving hospital food is a Herculean task if ever there was one. But in six years of working on this issue Sayre says she’s been encouraged by changes, such as increased local sourcing, taking place at nine healthcare facilities she liaises with, including John Muir Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

High on her list of achievements is her group’s Balanced Menus Challenge. The campaign nudges hospital food service directors to reduce the amount of animal protein in meals, cut industrial meat procurement by 20 percent, and increase sustainably produced alternatives, such as grass-fed beef raised without hormones or antibiotics. A switch like this, says Sayre, benefits public and environmental health, and also lowers hospital costs, a win-win for administrators watching over tight food budgets.

A recent trial study by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which collected data on cuts in beef, pork, and poultry purchasing at four Bay Area hospitals this public health advocate works with revealed a 28 percent drop in meat costs a year, a saving of around $400,000.

Work aside, Sayre has personal reasons for wanting to see hospital food improve. Hospitalized after the birth of her daughter seven years ago due to severe anemia, she relied on her then-husband to bring spinach salads and roast beef sandwiches to help her regain her health during her in-patient stay.

She has previous experience in public health community organizing with a food focus. Before moving to Berkeley Sayre worked for the food security project Tucson Urban Gardens helping mostly Latina women immigrants tend produce gardens along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I spoke with Sayre, 49, over dinner at her Central Berkeley home, where she works and lives with her two children. (Full disclosure: She is a friend.)

Sayre is part of a panel discussion tonight on rethinking hospital food service at the John Muir Medical Center’s Concord campus, where panel organizer Alison Negrin serves as executive chef. The event is co-sponsored by the John Muir Health Green Team, along with East Bay and Delta Diablo Slow Food Chapters. A kitchen tour begins at 5:30, discussion starts at 6:15, find more details here.

When people think of hospital meals, what comes to mind?

Hospital food is a long-standing joke. People assume it’s awful. It’s considered the worst institutional food, right up there with what gets served in prison.

How does Physicians for Social Responsibility work with local healthcare centers to improve food?

We provide technical assistance, organizational support, and forums for food service directors to share what they’ve learned about how to purchase, prepare, and serve nutritious and healthy food that’s good for people and the environment. This kind of institutional change is really challenging.

There’s an entrenched system of buying and making food in hospitals with purchasing contracts that can be tough to work around. But I’ve seen a shift here since a conference in Oakland in 2005 called FoodMed, where we brought sustainable agriculture representatives together with hospital food directors.

Why is this work important to you?

It’s one thing to make the personal decision to eat locally grown produce and cook meals at home and grow your own food. That’s all good, but it’s peanuts in the grand scheme of things. I want to affect food change in a large-scale way, and tackling hospital food is one way to do that.  I do think it’s important for patients to get healthy food while they’re in hospital, but the average in-patient stay is only three days. The people who really need better food at hospitals are the employees, who eat in the cafeteria five to seven times a week.

How can patients let hospitals know they expect better food?

Hospital administrators care — a lot — about patient evaluations known as Press Ganey surveys. So let the staff know what your food experience was like while you were hospitalized, whether it was good or bad and why. Or write a letter to the hospital; they do pay attention to these things.

Who do you think is leading the charge to overhaul hospital food?

People like Alison Negrin, who is a kind of rock star in the hospital food movement. She’s a celebrated chef who happens to work at John Muir as the executive chef — not every hospital has that position — and she and her team have made a lot of improvements to the food there. Alison comes from a place that hospitals are healing centers and the food that is served there should be part of that overall mission. It’s such a no-brainer and yet it seems like a novel concept and not everyone makes the connection. Our work really depends on having champions in the field like Alison.

What do you like about growing your own food in Berkeley?

Growing food here is a joy: The variety, accessibility, and the temperate climate, it’s all great. In contrast, growing food in the Arizona desert is really hard work; the soil there is so calcified it’s like trying to plant in a rock quarry. And if you don’t water constantly your plants just die. I grew up in the mid-West, the vast land of corn and soybeans. We had a summer garden, mostly tomatoes and green beans. Here I can grow pretty much what I want.

Where do you like to eat out in town?

My favorite place to take the kids is Sushi California. We can walk from home, it’s cozy, and there’s an acoustic guitar player on Monday and Friday nights. It’s super fresh, healthy, and a treat. I love that my children are exposed to a diverse range of food here. I don’t think I ate sushi until I was in my 20s.

For a quick, cheap lunch I like the specials at Vik’s. For $6-$10 you can get a flavorful eggplant, lamb, or chicken dish. I really like to have a substantial hot lunch, especially on cold and foggy days.

When I eat out with adults, I’m a fan of nursing small plates of delicious food along with a really good cocktail. My favorite places to do that include Five, I love the Southern sensibility and the extended happy hour. Their orzo mac & cheese with tomato jam is fantastic washed down with a Moscow Mule.

Cesar and Fonda also do small plates well, and Fonda’s serves killer margaritas. My latest place to go for small plates is Revival, where you can nibble on fresh garbanzo bean hummus and squash blossom flatbread. And they serve the most amazing dips — blue cheese aoili and pistachio-aise — with their French fries, which come out clean and crisp. I love the vibe there.

[Photo of Lucia Sayre: Rebecca Dale, Photo of Alison Negrin: © Akim Aginsky 2008]

Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.

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