At Hospital, Two Signals on Eating and Health

The home page of the Web site for Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland warns about childhood obesity, advising that “a healthy weight starts with healthy eating” and inviting families to adopt a “seven-day healthy lunch plan.”

But during lunchtime on Tuesday, the hospital’s own Friendly Café promoted the “M&M Cookie” for $1.99 as the day’s “featured treat.”

This is hardly the only children’s hospital in California sending such mixed messages, but it is the worst offender, according to a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the RAND Corporation.

The study examined what food was being sold in children’s hospitals’ cafeterias in California and how it was marketed. Researchers deemed only 7 percent of the entrees that were for sale healthy and criticized the vast majority of the hospitals for positioning high-calorie items, like ice cream and cookies, near cash registers to inspire impulse buying.

Children’s Hospital, in Oakland, received the poorest score of 14 hospitals surveyed. Two other Bay Area hospitals — Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital — tied for second most healthy.

Children’s Hospital officials in Oakland defended dishing up onion rings, cheeseburgers and pizza alongside healthier options like Italian pasta salad and okra sauté in the cafe, which serves about 1,200 people a day.

“You have parents and visitors here who it might be the worst day of their lives,” said Erin Goldsmith, a spokeswoman for the hospital. “How can we not offer them comfort food?”

But many hospital staff members eat at the cafe, too. Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital takes a healthier approach, baking instead of frying chicken nuggets and French fries. “We do feel a responsibility to set a good example,” said Dr. Tom Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford.

Workers at the Friendly Café in Oakland said their offerings had improved over the years.

The cafe used to have a large display of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a popcorn machine, whose tempting odors wafted through it, according to Maggie Lewis, a chef who has worked there for 11 years.

The cafe does have an extensive salad bar, but it is semihidden beyond the cash registers.

Every Tuesday, the North Oakland Farmers’ Market sets up just outside the hospital, making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to patients’ families and staff members.

Children enrolled in the Healthy Hearts Program, the weight-management clinic, get vouchers for produce at the market.

But inside the hospital, the sugary and fatty temptations of the vending machines lurk not far from the clinic.

“It kind of makes me laugh,” said Dr. Jen Matthews, a pediatrician. “We just spent an hour talking to a family about what not to eat and drink, and here it is right down the hall.”

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