HOUSTON—Two hard-hitting billboards posted near Ben Taub Hospital’s parent company, Harris Health System, urge the hospital to go #FastFoodFree. There is currently a McDonald’s restaurant in the hospital’s basement, but according to documents obtained by the Physicians Committee—a nonprofit of 12,000 doctors—the hospital may soon have an opportunity to change its food environment. The hospital’s contract with the fast-food chain sets an initial 10-year term that ended in 2012. The first of two five-year lease extensions expires in just a few months—on Sept. 24, 2017.
The Physicians Committee is offering pro bono legal assistance if the hospital would like to renegotiate its lease with the fast-food chain.
The billboards, posted week of April 24, are timed to get the attention of the board of trustees for Ben Taub Hospital/Harris Health System ahead of the trustees’ meeting on April 27. A local physician will testify at the board meeting to echo the billboards’ urgent public health message.
The Physicians Committee will also file a complaint the week of April 24 with the Houston Health Authority, David Persse, M.D.
"Artery-clogging burgers and shakes have no place inside a hospital," says Karen Smith, R.D., senior manager for clinical dietetics for the Physicians Committee. "The hospital could help bring down Houston’s high rates of diet-related diseases by offering healthful, plant-based options that appeal to visitors, patients, and staff."
Billboard Details: Scheduled to go up the week of April 24, and remaining posted until May 21, the billboards are located near Harris Health System’s headquarters. One billboard is on Almeda Road, east side, 440 feet south of South Loop, facing south. The other billboard is on Old Spanish Trail, north side, 130 feet west of Peerless Street, facing west.
Both billboards feature an image of a woman in a hospital bed. “Clogged Arteries? Your Heart’s Not Lovin’ the Burgers and Shakes,” the billboard states. "Ask your local hospital to go #FastFoodFree!" Viewers can visit www.MakeHospitalsHealthy.org and sign a petition to the chair of the Ben Taub Hospital/Harris Health System board of trustees or send a tweet to @HarrisHealth. The billboard artwork was rejected by the city of Houston for placement on street kiosks.
The Physicians Committee obtained the McDonald’s contract with Ben Taub Hospital/Harris Health System through the Texas Public Information Act and discovered that the hospital has a “percentage rent” agreement with the fast-food chain. This means that the more unhealthful food sold to staff, visitors, and patients, the more money the hospital makes.
Several hospitals have recently changed their food environments, including four hospitals that closed McDonald’s restaurants in 2016: Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis which ended its McDonald’s lease 10 years early. Currently, about 11 U.S. hospitals host McDonald’s restaurants.
A study published in the journal Circulation found that people who eat fast food once a week increase their risk of dying from heart disease by 20 percent. Two to three fast-food meals a week increases the risk of death by 50 percent. Four or more fast-food meals a week increases the risk of dying from heart disease by nearly 80 percent.
Costs are a concern to safety net hospitals like Ben Taub, but a recent study shows that healthful, disease-fighting food can be inexpensive. Published in Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, the study finds that omnivores can save $750 a year by simply switching to a plant-based diet.
In the Physicians Committee’s 2016 report on hospital food, Ben Taub Hospital received a patient food score of 67 percent. It lost points for hosting a fast-food outlet.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research and medical training.