When beginning farmers think of markets for their produce, they should increasingly consider local hospitals. A new study by Health Care Without Harm, an international agency promoting sustainable practices in health care institutions, demonstrates that the majority of US hospitals are choosing to serve their patients fresh, local, healthy foods. According to the study, more than nine out of 10 of hospitals surveyed served local food or beverages in their cafeterias and patient meals. About four out of five served sustainable dairy products. The involvement of hospitals in local agriculture has skyrocketed: About 80 percent of hospitals nationwide hosted a farmers’ market or community-supported agriculture (CSA) program on-site, and about 60 percent bought food directly from a local farm. In addition, the report shows that there is an upward trend in the number of hospitals that have eliminated trans fats from their menus and have decreased the number of products served containing high-fructose corn syrup.
Several facilities have even gone a step further by trying to educate their patients and the general community about local and sustainable farming. In 2010, several hospitals “…used holiday meals, Earth Day, National Registered Dietitian Day or National Nutrition Month” to promote sustainable farming practices. Other hospitals hosted farm-to-table meals and “lunch and learn” events, and organized visits to the farms that sell to them or have a CSA. For example, United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley, Washington started hosting Farm Fresh Fridays and devoted their Friday menus to meals containing all local ingredients. Through this program, United gained support from the community and established supplier connections that last the whole year, not just part of the year.
Another step that has made a commitment to sustainability more tangible is the creation of gardens-on site at hospitals such as the Winnishiek Medical Center (WMC) in Decorah, Iowa. The garden at WMC “…provides fresh, organically grown produce” and also employs sustainable techniques like crop rotation. Last year this garden produced more than 2,000 pounds of produce, which is used in the salad bar and in patient meals. This garden uniquely incorporates both beauty and functionality. Another hospital in nearby Cresco, Iowa—Regional Health Services of Howard County—also owns a similar garden on their property, which grows vegetables such as tomatoes as well as beautiful flowers like morning glories.
Judith Rubleske, acting president of the Michiana Organic Grower’s Cooperative in South Bend, Indiana and a local farmer, shared her thoughts about these developments and the recent report. Judith has had a relationship with Memorial Hospital in South Bend for a long time, working as a registered nurse/nutritionist for the St. Joseph County Women, Infants, and Children for about 20 years. Judith said that in 2009, the Director of Nutritional Services at Memorial Hospital expressed interest in buying butternut squash from her, and worked it out so that he could do so through an intermediary. The hospital “…ordered about 20 large butternuts or just over 100 pounds that year,” Judith said.
Judith said that many chefs in the area, whether based in a hospital or a restaurant, are interested in buying fresh, local, sustainably grown produce, since this kind of produce is tastier and more nutrient-dense. She mentioned that, earlier in 2011, the Bremen Community Hospital purchased a shipment of squash from her, and the chef of the hospital later told her he was very pleased with her produce and the prospect of buying local. All the hospital chefs that Judith has had contact with are happy to be helping out an urban garden team in a struggling neighborhood with squash sales. Brokering relationships with hospitals, much as Judith did, seems key in marketing local and sustainable products to these new markets. Models such as these, and the examples cited in the Health Care Without Harm report, suggest promising possibilities for farmers exploring new markets.