HANCOCK - If Mark Pittillo has his way, the cliche about the poor taste and quality of hospital food will soon be only a memory at Portage Health.
Pittillo, who is Portage Health's director of food services, said the hospital recently became part of a Michigan Hospital Association program called Healthy Food Hospitals, which is an initiative to serve meals with fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat and low-sugar meals, with as much locally grown products as possible.
Portage Health is one of 49 hospitals in Michigan taking part in the program. The state is No. 10 in the country for percentage of obese residents, and the Healthy Food Hospitals program is an effort to reduce that statistic.
"Michigan is going to be on the forefront," Pittillo said.
Pittillo said Portage Health is taking part in the Healthy Food Hospital program - which began locally May 5 - on its own initiative.
"This is an all-voluntary program," he said.
Participant hospitals in the program seek to achieve four stars, Pittillo said. The first star, which Portage Health has received, requires all juices it serves be sugar-free, and the milk it serves children has no hormones. The second star requires the creation of a healthy children's menu, which for example, has no soft drinks.
"They can't just order anything they want," he said.
That program is in place, also, Pittillo said.
To achieve the third star in the program, Pittillo said the hospital is required by 2012 to put nutritional labeling on all the food served in the cafeteria.
Pittillo said he's particularly excited by the fourth star, which must be in place by 2020, requiring the hospital serve at least 20 percent of Michigan-grown products. That commitment has begun with an arrangement from a Houghton grower who will supply vegetables grown specifically for the hospital.
Besides providing food for patients, who can order from a fairly extensive menu, Pittillo said the cafeteria serves employees and members of the community, many of whom eat all three daily meals there.
"In the community, we are the icon," he said. "We're trying to make people eat healthy. We're providing more options than have been provided in a long time."
Some of the food the hospital will serve will be organically grown, Pittillo said. The salads served now have organic produce.
Pittillo said the hospital is also going "green" by serving some food on biodegradable and compostable plates and by composting much of the vegetable waste. The "greening" effort will take place over the next four weeks.
"We'll virtually have no styrofoam in the building in two weeks," he said.
Pittillo said about 8,500 meals are served to patients and in the cafeteria. Residents of PortagePointe senior living community are also served.
"We have a lot of product we go through," he said.
Pittillo said one of the reasons many community members eat at the hospital cafeteria is its low prices, and although making the switch to fresh ingredients will be more expensive, it's not expected prices will be raised significantly.
"At this point, we're willing to absorb that," he said.