There's a Hospital-Food Revolution Happening in America

Purchasing from local farms and other producers is good for the economy and good for patients.

(Photo: Karen Moskowitz/Getty Images)

Oct 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Food-service managers and chefs from seven medical facilities along the 11-mile stretch between the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul, called the Central Corridor, met recently to eat community garden carrots and local handmade tamales. They gathered, along with nine area colleges, not just to nosh, but to figure out how to keep more of what is collectively a $25 million annual food budget within the Twin Cities. Not only are handmade tortillas, crisp watercress, and chocolate sorbet infinitely more appealing than jiggly cubes of green Jell-O, buying local products is a boon to the communities these hospitals and clinics serve.

Because they are moored to their geographical homes, so-called anchor institutions like universities and hospitals—eds and meds—are engines of local economies that, in the age of outsourcing, aren’t likely to move out of state or overseas. Initiatives like the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership in the Twin Cities aim to harness the economic might of these institutions to purchase goods and services from local vendors.

For hospitals in particular, favoring food suppliers close to home is about more than just budget allocations. Fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense local food is an important part of holistic health care, Ellen Watters of the Anchor Partnership explained. “The other exciting thing about local food for the local health care system is it allows them to better serve the community they operate in,” she added. When members of the Twin Cities’ East African and Hispanic populations are in the hospital, being served injera and tortillas can be deeply comforting.

Steve Kroeker, operations manager at Regions Hospital/HealthPartners in St. Paul, is looking to see how he can get additional local vendors in his kitchen. Last spring, he added tamales from La Loma, greens from Garden Fresh Farms, and tortillas from La Perla Tortillas to his menu; he also serves locally processed Bergin nut mixes at catered events.

But the stumbling blocks of large institutions working with smaller local producers are well known. It can be a stretch for small vendors to guarantee food delivery in large enough quantities, in time to meet deadlines, and with proper liability coverage. This is to say nothing of the logistics of incorporating smaller local vendors into the contracts of corporate food distribution systems. Dave Roeser, president of Garden Fresh Farms, who has worked with the Anchor Partnership, compares the challenge small farmers and food producers face to what’s happened in the craft beer market. Unable to elbow their way into tight distribution contracts controlled by a few large companies, microbreweries had to come up with creative ways to get their product to market, utilizing tasting rooms and working directly with restaurants. Hospital chefs, dietitians, and consumers understand the appeal of fresh local produce, Roeser explained, but the more frequent deliveries required by smaller outfits don’t fit the large-scale corporate food buying and distribution model.

There’s great support from the CEOs of Partnership members, Watters said, and the next step is building a requirement for 10 or 20 percent local purchasing into contracts. The Anchor Partnership’s goal is to get each institution to use five local food vendors by the end of 2015.

Around the country there’s encouraging evidence that hospitals can successfully overcome these hurdles. Green City Growers, Cleveland’s 3 1/4-acre hydroponic operation—one of the largest urban greenhouses in the country—distributes 75 percent of its 3 million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs to local hospitals, universities, and supermarkets. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gundersen Lutheran Health System was a founding member of the Fifth Season Co-op, whose members include other anchor institutions, as well as food producers, processors, and distributors—all the key players in a local food system. The 325-bed hospital made a commitment to buy 20 percent of its food from local sources. “It makes no sense to go further away to buy great food that’s right here at our doorstep,” Tom J. Thompson, Gundersen’s sustainability coordinator, told Kathy Gerwig in Greening Health Care: How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet. Under executive chef Richard Jarmusz—who trained at the Culinary Institute of America—at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont, half of the food served is sustainably and locally sourced, 80 percent of the beef is antibiotic-free and Vermont-raised, the eggs are organic, and 70 local farmers provide produce.

Across the country, there’s a desire to support the local economy and to reinforce Hippocrates’ sage and simple idea that food can be medicine. The challenge is restructuring established models in institutional food systems. But many hospital chefs and CEOs like those from the Anchor Partnership are determined to untie the knot of red tape.

“Health care folk have a lot of reasons to want to see this happen,” Watters said.