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California Passes Law Guaranteeing Plant-Based Meals For Hospital Patients

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Hospital patients and prison inmates in California are about to gain better access to vegan meals. On September 18, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law requiring public institutions that “provide food to ‘captive audiences’” to make plant-based foods available to everyone in their care — and as the law underlines, “plant-based” means absolutely no animal products or byproducts.

Under the provisions of SB 1138, these meals must be devoid of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. The law applies to all kinds of licensed health care facilities, ranging from psychiatric and general care hospitals to nursing centers, as well as state jails. 

California State Senator Nancy Skinner wrote the bill, which was co-sponsored by two nonprofits. One was the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that represents 12,000 doctors lobbying for better nutrition and research methods. The other was Social Compassion in Legislation, which advocates for legislation that protects animals.

“We are elated that Gov. Brown sees the value in requiring plant-based meals in prisons and medical facilities,” Judie Mancuso, president and founder of Social Compassion in Legislation, said in a press release. “Plant-based foods are key to better health outcomes, fighting climate change, and reducing the number of animals in our food production.”

The new legislation follows recent directives from medical groups to incorporate more veggie options on the hospital menu. Last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a food policy that called on hospitals to provide “a variety of healthy food, including plant-based meals” and eliminate processed meats from their cafeterias. The American College of Cardiology likewise recommends “at least one plant-based main dish that is low in fat, sodium, and added sugars” for a la carte hospital menus.

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The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine thanked Governor Brown for following these recommendations in both its press release and a video featuring Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard. Barnard praised the California law in particular for expanding vegan meal options to patients who may be suffering from cardiac problems.

“If you ever were concerned about somebody who was in the hospital, maybe for a heart problem, and the next morning the breakfast tray arrived, piled high with sausage, and bacon, and scrambled eggs, and lots of unhealthy foods — the very foods that got them there in the first place — and you’re wondering why don’t hospitals serve anything healthy, today is a whole new day,” he said in the YouTube video.

The new measure may also save California hospitals and jails money. The Physicians Committee press release shares statistics from St. Joseph Health System in Sonoma County, which reports that vegetarian meals cost about 50 percent less than meat entrees. The hospital estimates it will save $5,000 per year by serving more plant-based options.

“Whether to protect animals, our climate or our health, those of us who choose to eat a vegan diet can celebrate today with Gov. Brown’s signing of SB 1138,” Senator Skinner said in the press release. “SB 1138 ensures that people in hospitals, healthcare facilities, or prison have access to plant-based meals.”