Try to find a healthy entree at the state's children's hospitals and you might have better luck at the neighborhood drive-thru.
Just 7 percent of entrees sold in hospital cafeterias statewide are classified as "healthy" in a new study by UCLA and the Rand Corp. Researchers said their findings are troubling, given the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity.
"Unfortunately, the food in many hospitals is no better and in some cases worse than what you would find in a fast-food restaurant," said Lenard Lesser, the study's lead investigator and a physician at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine.
He and the other researchers focused on cafeterias serving children's hospitals. Their findings will be published in the January/February edition of the medical journal Academic Pediatrics.
One Sacramento-area institution UC Davis Medical Center was singled out by the researchers as performing far better than the average when it comes to offering healthy food. While the results for individual hospitals weren't released by the researchers, UC Davis on Tuesday eagerly touted its strong showing.
The food offered in its children's hospital, which is part of the UCD Medical Center, was rated the healthiest in a survey of 14 hospitals statewide, logging 30 out of 37 possible points.
A stop at the hospital's cafeteria on Tuesday gave an inkling why.
No impulse-buy goodies such as cookies, ice cream or other treats lurk close by cash registers. Salads, baked chips, fruit juices and whole grain breads are standard fare.
Menus identify foods that are low in sodium or high in fiber. Signs direct customers to healthier items and encourage healthy eating.
Marty Gothard, manager of the Department of Food and Nutrition Services for UC Davis, said the healthy food is popular with patrons. The UC Davis Children's Hospital cafeteria has moved since the survey was taken in July 2010, but revenue is up 40 percent $1.2 million at the new facility, Gothard said.
On Tuesday, UC Davis researcher Fernanda Bononi scanned a smartphone while enjoying a lunch of chicken soup, a green salad and a banana. The native of Brazil welcomed the cafeteria's lighter fare.
"The food is close to what I'm used to eating," she said. At other venues, the food is heavier. "Usually, sandwiches, pizza, burgers particularly."
At UC Davis, a team of food service managers and dietitians regularly consult with cafeteria customers patients, families, nurses, physicians and employees on healthy meal options and how best to promote them.
Meals are examined and analyzed for caloric and sodium content in a test kitchen before they go to the cafeteria.
Starting today, individual nutritional labels will be affixed to foods, providing dietary information and food allergy warnings.
"It's pretty extensive work. There's testing and analysis," said hospital food service manager Gary Byrdsong. "We look at options to explore, and we listen to our customers."
The other Sacramento-area cafeteria included in the study was the one at Sutter Children's Center at Sutter Memorial Hospital in east Sacramento. On Tuesday, Sutter Health officials said they had not read the research and did not know how their cafeteria fared.
Sutter spokeswoman Liz Madison said the cafeteria posts nutritional information and offers vegan and vegetarian options, as well as gluten-free and dairy-free choices.
Statewide, most children's hospitals surveyed scored significantly lower than UC Davis, an average of 19 points out of the most-healthy 37, Lesser said.
Sure, all of the hospital venues provided diet sodas and low-fat or skim milk. But many fell short in other areas:
81 percent offered high-sugar calorie bombs such as ice cream and cookies near cash registers tempting impuse buys.
Half of the hospitals didn't tout healthy entrees at their eateries.
Low-calorie salad dressings weren't an option at 44 percent of cafeterias.
Only a quarter of hospitals offered whole wheat bread.
Lesser said the survey's results were disappointing.
"The one thing that was really surprising was the marketing that's done at the cash register and the checkout lane," he said. "In many of the hospitals, we saw ice cream freezers at the checkout."