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WVU Extension Service assists Martinsburg VA in effort to help veterans kick caffeinated, sugary drinks

A veteran fills his cup with fruit-infused water at the Martinsburg VAMC.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The United States military runs on caffeine. Whether on base or on the battlefield, the men and women serving our country often rely on coffee, soda and energy drinks to keep them on their toes. 

Unfortunately, those drinks usually come packed with lots of sugars and artificial flavorings. So, Barbara Hartman, chief of Nutrition and Food Service at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center (VAMC) in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, wanted to find a way to help veterans change their habits.

That’s when she met Kristin McCartney, WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program specialist and assistant professor, at a conference in 2015. McCartney gave a presentation on the Rethink Your Drink campaign, launched by the Family Nutrition Program in 2013 to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and encourage people to drink more milk and water.

Rethink Your Drink takes several forms, including a media blitz that has reached millions through billboards, radio, TV and internet ads. It also includes direct community education. As a result of the Rethink Your Drink @ School and Rethink Your Drink @ Camp campaigns, some camps and schools have removed all sugary drinks from their cafeterias and snack machines, and installed bottle refilling stations to encourage kids to drink more water.

"The campaign was originally all about messaging, not about environmental change. But the message resonated with community leaders. It’s gone a lot further than we ever thought it would,” McCartney said.

Hartman wanted to see that kind of change in her hospital. She and McCartney began talking about how to bring the Rethink Your Drink campaign to the Martinsburg VAMC.

Not long after, the hospital held a soft launch of its Rethink Your Drink program, kicking it off during a 2K walk. Hartman’s team made fruit-infused water to hand out to attendees, using recipes provided by the Family Nutrition Program. They also passed out Rethink Your Drink educational materials and had a staff member dressed as the official Rethink Your Drink mascot, a big blue water droplet named Quench.

The event turned out to be such a success that Hartman charged Annmarie Price, Operations Manager of the Martinsburg VAMC’s Nutrition and Food Service, to roll out the program in the hospital’s domiciliary. “She has a way of pulling rabbits out of a hat,” Hartman said.

Price had her work cut out for her. The domiciliary serves about half of the hospital’s patients, dishing out 200 meals a day. At the time, veterans could request sodas with their meals or fill their cups with lemonade or fruit punch—each packed with added sugars and artificial coloring—that was available at the cafeteria’s two drink stations.

In an effort to give veterans a healthier beverage option, Hartman and Price wanted to add fruit-infused water to the drink stations. This required some research. First, they went through several models of dispensers to find one that was both attractive and durable.

Developing a menu of fruit-infused water options required a little trial and error, too. Pineapple water was, in Price’s words, “an epic fail…It clogged the dispenser up,” she said. The recipe for orange-basil water also needed a little tweaking. “We were putting too much basil in,” Price said. But strawberry-mint was a quick hit, as was cantaloupe-lime.

The kitchen staff also realized that fruit-infused water takes time. At first, the fruits and herbs were not added far enough in advance to fully infuse the flavors. The staff now prepares each day’s water the evening before—chopping the fruits and herbs while they prepare for the dinnertime salad bar—and store it in the refrigerator overnight.

Even as Hartman’s and Price’s team worked out these kinks, the water was quickly becoming a favorite drink option in the domiciliary.

When they noticed veterans were draining the dispenser at lunchtime, they expanded the fruit-infused water option to dinnertime. When patient surveys started asking for the infused water at breakfast time too, the team was happy to oblige. “The product really sold itself,” Hartman said.

Now, the domiciliary goes through five to 10 gallons of fruit-infused water each day. It has become so popular, in fact, the domiciliary no longer provides soda as an option in the cafeteria line. The VA also removed one of its punch and lemonade dispensers. “I think part of the success was, we added a choice. If we had just said ‘no soda’ that would have gone over like a lead balloon,” Hartman said.

Hartman said the fruit-infused water is having benefits beyond mealtime. “It helps with the veterans’ healing process. It helps them to feel better about themselves and feel better about the VA and the treatment they’re receiving here,” she said. “The ultimate outcome is, they heal.”

The VA’s move to healthier drink options might even create a ripple effect for other hospitals. Price represents the VA on a national committee with food service providers, and plans to lobby manufacturers to create a healthy fruit-infused water product for mass distribution.

This would allow the VA to expand fruit-infused water to its tray line, which serves patients who receive meals in their hospital rooms because they aren’t well enough to eat in the domiciliary. But it also would give other hospitals an easy way to embrace healthier drink options.

McCartney said she is not surprised by the Martinsburg VAMC’s success with fruit-infused water. Anywhere the Rethink Your Drink campaign offers fruit-infused water, people seem to flock to it. “As simple as it is, it’s novel enough that it can ignite change,” she said. “It opens people up to the rest of Rethink Your Drink’s message, that we should not be consuming all this extra sugar.”

Hartman is grateful for WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program’s help in getting started. “It shows the value in people getting together and talking,” she said.