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Hospital Buys Local for Healthy Food, Economy

Staff, customers rave over fresh food and friendly farmers

September 13, 2006 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Barbara Norconk sold 450 pounds of fresh asparagus at Munson’s inaugural “Meet Your Farmer” lunch.

TRAVERSE CITY — Spring pasta stir-fry with fresh-picked Norconk Farm asparagus. Summer salad with greens, sautéed beef tips, and plump Bardenhagen Farm blackberries. Fall salad of mixed greens and slow-roasted pork with sautéed apples from the Steimel Bros. Farm.

A four-star restaurant? Hardly. Try a hospital cafeteria with silverware clattering on plastic trays. And the chef widening her eyes in panic as she realizes that she’s going to run out of local blackberries before she can serve everyone who wants them.

At Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, employees and visitors have enjoyed such mouth-watering creations ever since northwest Michigan’s farms started harvesting their crops this past spring. Cindy Klinefelter, a nurse, said that Munson’s “Meet Your Farmer” lunches, and the mini-farmers market that accompanies them, feels like an added employee benefit. Nurse manager Diane Glowicki, who filed through the cafeteria line for the salad that featured the local blackberries, agreed.

“I think we are the luckiest people ever,” she said.

Munson’s efforts are part of a growing, nationwide trend among health care organizations to connect their employees to fresh healthy food while providing a market for local family farms. Hospitals are opening farmers markets and serving local lunches to keep staff and patients healthy. Insurance companies are underwriting farm share programs, in which customers get a box of fresh produce from a local farm every week, in order to cut obesity-related health care costs. Meanwhile, local family farms are reaping a healthy profit.

Robust health is inextricably connected to delicious food and prosperous local farms, according to Laura McCain, a chef, dietician and the creative force behind Munson’s “Meet Your Farmer” lunches.

“How are we going to have beautiful fresh produce if we don’t have local farmers?” she asked. “Every community needs local farmers. I don’t know how you can eat well without them.”

Plums and Prescriptions
A dietician for 25 years, Ms. McCain sees connecting people to local food as a critical part of her responsibilities.

“To me, that is what a dietician should do—connect people to sources of high quality food. Make it easy for a person to make a choice for healthy food. We have lots of accessibility for junk food. It is more challenging to have access to good food.”

To that end, Ms. McCain invites the farmer whose product is being featured to come to the cafeteria that day and answer diners’ questions. Employees can also buy boxes of the fruit or vegetable fresh and pay for it in the cafeteria check-out line. And the determined dietician passes out the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference guide to local farms, so diners can easily find farm products on their own.

The experience of Kaiser Permanente, a California-based health care chain that has launched 30 farmers markets at its hospitals and other medical facilities since 2003, shows that connecting people to local food improves their diets. In a recent survey, 71 percent of repeat shoppers said they now ate more fruits and vegetables because of the hospital-based markets and 63 percent said they now ate a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, said Preston Maring, the physician who founded the markets.

Munson’s mini-markets, and the new Sweetwater Local Foods Market at the Hackley Health preventive care medical facility near Muskegon, Mich., aim for similar success.

On the other side of Lake Michigan, the Physicians Plus Insurance Corporation, which insures 95,000 people in south central Wisconsin, launched a program that encourages its members to buy fresh, healthy foods from local, community-supported agriculture farms. The farms charge an up-front season fee for weekly boxes brimming with produce, and Physicians Plus pays part of the cost.

At the root of all these programs is a very simple idea: A healthy diet, like prescription medication or vaccinations, should be an integral part of health care. Perhaps that’s why Kaiser Permanente’s Web site proudly announces “Now you can pick up your prescription and your green beans in the same trip.”

Starting from Scratch
Ms. McCain hopes that some day Munson can make purchases of local farm products a routine course of business for all of its meals, not just special lunches. But the best way to do that, she said, is to start slow and learn how to cost effectively fold local purchases and food preparation into the hospital system. Like other institutions, such as schools, hospital food services can essentially make one quick order for hundreds of food items from a large food distributor. By comparison, Ms. McCain finds herself at times playing phone tag with multiple farmers for a smaller number of products.

Nonetheless, the costs of local farm products have been comparable to what the hospital pays to its standard food distributor, she said. And she’s found it easy to find local farmers using the online, searchable version of the Taste the Local Difference farm guide. The go-slow approach also is allowing the kitchen prep cooks to steadily build new cooking skills to create dishes from scratch, using gleaming, fresh ingredients instead of heat-and-serve products out of a can or box. Professionally, they find it greatly satisfying, Ms McCain said.

“It has been encouraging for them to work with such beautiful fresh produce,” she said.

“There is a learning curve, but I think the biggest thing we found is that it’s not as labor intensive as we expected.”

With fresh, just-picked asparagus, for example, stems did not need to be broken off to remove tough ends. It only needed to be rinsed.

“I think it’s been a learning experience for them to see that not all asparagus is the same,” she said.

Reaping Profits
The Munson program is turning the heads of farmers, too.

The hospital has purchased $3,570 worth of asparagus, strawberries, blackberries, and dried and fresh tart cherries so far this year and sold nearly 1,000 lunches featuring farm fresh foods.

And that’s just the tip of the economic iceberg. A new study, Eat Fresh and Grow Jobs, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and the Michigan Land Use Institute, shows that increasing sales of fresh, local foods in Michigan could increase net farm income up to 16 percent and generate as many as 1,889 new jobs.

That seems like a realistic goal, given customers’ insatiable demand for fresh, locally grown food.

Benzie County asparagus farmer Barbara Norconk, whose green spears were tossed with chicken and a pesto cream sauce for a pasta stir-fry at the inaugural “Meet Your Farmer” day in June, shook her head in amazement as she watched employees buy 450 pounds of asparagus.

“I’m going to sell out,” she said. “I could sell more if I had it.”

In August, Leelanau County farmer Christi Bardenhagen had the same experience.  Customers purchased 20 flats of blackberries in less than two hours—compared to just two flats that she’d sold recently at a local grocery store that failed to highlight the local connection.

“The emphasis here is freshness and the local produce,” she said, noting her farm used to have to truck their blackberries hundreds of miles to Detroit and pay for extra gas and labor to market them before a recent resurgence in interest among consumers for local grown.

The hospital, she noted, can provide her with a lot of close-by customers.

 “There are a lot of people here,” she said, as employees quickly bought out all the blackberries she’d brought and expressed hope that she’d bring more. “It’s a big market of people. It is a pretty exciting time for us to have this interest in local produce.”

Ms. McCain, meanwhile, suddenly realized that all the boxes of fresh blackberries for sale to customers were gone—meaning she couldn’t steal some to add to her supply for salads.

“Man, oh man, we’re out,” she said, just as nurse Kathy Zimmerman walked into the cafeteria.

Ms. Zimmerman was disappointed. “I came down just to buy the blackberries,” she said.

Christi Bardenhagen offered to call the farm and see if someone could deliver more. “Awesome,” Ms. McCain exclaimed, as she ran for her cell phone.

Diane Conners manages the Michigan Land Use Institute's Farm-to-Cafeteria and Taste the Local Difference programs. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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