HOUSTON—The McDonald’s restaurant in Ben Taub Hospital, which closed last year due to flooding from Hurricane Harvey, will remain closed. The McDonald’s was located in the hospital’s basement, and according to the Houston Chronicle, “Ben Taub suffered flooding in a number of basement areas Aug. 27, , the day Harvey's heaviest rains fell.” Since the flooding, Physicians Committee—a nonprofit of 12,000 doctors—has contacted the hospital numerous times and each time the group has been told that the McDonald’s restaurant is closed, although the cafeteria has recently reopened.
According to documents obtained by the Physicians Committee through the Texas Public Information Act, Ben Taub Hospital’s contract with McDonald’s sets an initial 10-year term that ended September 2012. The parties had the option for two five-year extensions, and the first extension expired in September, 2017, soon after the flooding. The Physicians Committee believes that Ben Taub Hospital declined the last five-year lease extension with McDonald’s. The Physicians Committee has removed Ben Taub Hospital from its official list of hospitals that host fast food.
“In place of artery-clogging burgers and shakes, the hospital can now expand its offerings of healthful, affordable, plant-based meals,” says Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., of the Physicians Committee. “Ben Taub Hospital can become a leader in bringing down Houston’s high rates of diet-related diseases.”
Bandana Chawla, M.D., of Houston, has twice testified before the board of trustees for Ben Taub Hospital/Harris Health System. Representing the 119 Houston-area members of Physicians Committee, Dr. Chawla recommended that Ben Taub Hospital focus on providing and promoting healthful plant-based meals to comply with a policy issued recently by the American Medical Association. Scientific studies show that plant-based diets—fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains—can help people lower blood pressure and prevent or even reverse diabetes, among other benefits.
The Physicians Committee sponsored two hard-hitting billboards that in April 2017 were posted near Ben Taub Hospital’s parent company, Harris Health System. The billboards parodied McDonald’s slogan and were 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. Dr Chawla testified at the board meeting in April and again in October to echo the billboards’ urgent public health message.
The Physicians Committee also filed a complaint on April 25, 2017, with the Houston Health Authority, David Persse, M.D.
In 2014, 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 had 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 made.
Several hospitals have recently changed their food environments, including Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, all of which have closed McDonald’s restaurants. Currently, about 11 U.S. hospitals host McDonald’s, including John Peter Smith Hospital and Medical Center, Navicent Health, both of which have McDonald’s contracts that end in 2019. Physicians Committee maintains lists of hospitals that host fast food: www.MakeHospitalsHealthy.org.
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 increase the risk of death by 50 percent. Four or more fast-food meals a week increase the risk of dying from heart disease by nearly 80 percent.
Costs are a concern to safety net hospitals like Ben Taub, but St. Joseph Health System in Sonoma County, Calif., reports, “Vegetarian entrées cost about 50 percent less than meat entrées.” The hospital projects saving $5,000 a year by serving more meat-free meals. A recent study published in Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, finds that omnivores can save $750 a year by simply switching to a plant-based diet.
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.