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Kalamazoo: Hospital Digs into Local Food

Pioneering move finds strong support from town’s Good Food scene

November 19, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Methodist Hospital
  Kalamazoo’s Bronson Hospital will soon be using local growers for 25 percent of its cafeteria and patient food.
KALAMAZOO—The thing to know right off about Michael Rowe, food service director for Bronson Methodist Hospital, is that, in just two years, he’s taken the facility from zero locally produced food in patient and cafeteria meals to almost 12 percent, or $366,000 in local products.

And he’s just getting started; by the end of this year, Mr. Rowe hopes to bump that number up to 25 percent. Apparently, he has no plan to stop there, either.

In fact, he said, the proposition is simple for a locally owned hospital like Bronson: “We spend $3 million a year on food; why not try and give all of that back to the community? It matches our whole mission and the values of this hospital about stewardship of resources and supporting our community and neighborhoods."

It was Bronson top management’s commitment to local people and the environment that embraced Mr. Rowe's big idea when he returned from a 2007 Health Care Without Harm "FoodMed" conference. He learned there about hospitals signing pledges to practice what they preach about healthy food, including playing a major role in opening markets for nutritious, sustainably raised food from local farms.

Bronson quickly became the first in Michigan to sign the Health Care Without Harm pledge, one of among many firsts for hospitals and corporate Michigan that Bronson has made in its long history of going clean, green, and local. This includes Bronson's pivotal decision 10 years ago, when building a new facility, to keep the hospital downtown. Rather than join the sprawl exodus of downtown business, Bronson put its money and future behind the city's core.

While the hospital made news with its intentions, Mr. Rowe quickly got to work on the ground, developing the program by connecting with Kalamazoo's Good Food scene.

His first contact was Grant Fletcher, a new Bronson staff person, who had ties to the Water Street Coffee Joint, a downtown Kalamazoo booster and Fair Trade and organic coffee roaster.

"We began using Water Street coffee throughout the hospital," Mr. Rowe said.

Then, through those contacts and Kalamazoo's farmers markets, he found others.

"Next, we were able to find some local organic farms and ready-made products, like a local bakery using all organic and mostly local ingredients," he said.

Now Bronson is up to 24 local vendors, from vegetables to coffee and bakery products. It hosts an indoor winter farmers market to promote local products and healthy food options. Employees also benefit from the opportunity purchase a 12-week share of a local farm's produce. The farm, Blue Dog Greens, from nearby Bangor, delivers its CSA shares (Community Supported Agriculture) direct to the hospital.

More Than Money
The hospital is doing more than just spending money on local food. It is also trying to educate its employees and customers with signage and other outreach. The signs explain to cafeteria patrons why buying local and organic when possible is important to the hospital and, ultimately, for the community.

It's about putting our local economy and food quality first, Mr. Rowe said. Buying from a local farm keeps money in the community, which can keep farms and farmland in the community, too, along with the food they produce. When that food is produced in harmony with the environment, through organic practices, for example, it also keeps birds, bees, and water safe and plentiful. Fair treatment of farm workers, finally, brings the justice of Good Food full circle.

“We try to educate as much as possible about why it’s important that we know where food comes from and how it's produced,” he said.

And the hospital staff just works around whatever it takes to work local food into the system.

"At first, it takes a little bit more time to wash all the lettuce by hand, for example, versus using lettuce prewashed in chlorine," Mr. Rowe said. "But it's not really that taxing, and it gets easier all the time, once you get to know the farms and work on your processes."

"The feedback has been super positive," he observed, especially from staff. "They’re here eating at the cafe every day; to them it’s huge. With a healthcare background, they understand the benefits."

Mr. Rowe attributes some of Bronson’s high patient satisfaction, which a 2008 Gallup poll ranked in the top 1 percent nationwide, to the tasty, fresh food it serves from local farms.

Kalamazoo's other major hospital, Borgess Medical Center, has also started a Good Food journey with a monthly farmers market on site during the growing season, which it started in 2008.

"Employee and visitor participation has grown each month, and farmer’s market days are now greeted with a buzz of anticipation," said Borgess property management executive Eric Buzzell.

"It’s really great to see the interest in local foods and the community connections being made," said Laura Bell, food and nutrition finance manager, who is also the farm market coordinator. She added that employees can earn wellness credits for participating, and that the medical center has also signed the Health Care Without Harm "Healthy Food" pledge.

Beyond the Hospital
Mr. Rowe and Bronson Methodist Hospital also are very involved on the community side of Kalamazoo's food and farming network, engaging with neighbors and community groups ranging from film enthusiasts to the local library.

Both Mr. Rowe and Bronson's retail cafeteria manager Grant Fletcher, sit on the Eat Local Kalamazoo committee, a group of groups having fun and getting people together around food and farming. Eat Local Kalamazoo holds workshops, like "Everything But the Beak," which was about cooking a whole chicken. It also hosts other community events, like a recent evening with Nicolette Hahn, author of Righteous Porkchop: Farming and Eating Sustainably.

Not surprising, Bronson Hospital is a full-scale partner in Eat Local Kalamazoo, along with Food Dance Cafe, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Michigan Land Trustees, People's Food Co-op, Southwest Michigan Community Harvest Fest, Water Street Coffee Joint, and Fair Food Matters.

All of these groups and more, including the downtown farmers market, which Mr. Rowe oversees as a board member, are pathways in Kalamazoo's food and farm network.

This is the fifth in a series about food and farming in southwest Lower Michigan. Financial support for this Good Food tour comes from the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. Patty Cantrell is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she built northwest Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a new economic strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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