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Hospital Pledge May Mean New Income Source for Small Farmers

May 6, 2013 |

healthcare food localA nationwide initiative to encourage hospitals to provide patients and employees with healthier food choices may benefit independent growers. The Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) program encourages hospitals across the country to pledge to a more sustainable food program in their facilities with a focus on buying local and encouraging preventative healthcare.

The Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) program is the brainchild of the folks at Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and is just one of their many initiatives to encourage hospitals to use their purchasing power to promote preventative healthcare through healthy food. HCWH began in 1996 in response to the discovery that the burning of medical waste was one of the largest sources of the carcinogen dioxin on the planet. HCWH is comprised of 28 separate organizations in 52 countries. The group is a privately funded 501 c3 with several green program successes already under their belt.

Food without mercury, toxins, too many preservatives, pesticides and other pollutants should not be in hospitals, but making the change to sustainable alternatives can be trying due to a lack of established infrastructure. Organic farmers have the food and many hospitals are willing to take it but making the subcontract a reality means research, networking and usually working with regional facilitators.

Lucy Norris of Northwest Agriculture Business Center, a facilitator between small farms and local businesses, explains some of the barriers hospitals face when switching to sustainable food sources. “When a hospital places an order they are not overhauling everything from conventional global product overnight; they are taking baby steps. A lot of that has to do with infrastructure barriers. They may have only 20 percent of their food budget allocated to a sort of free budget so they have to spend 70-80 percent with their contracts,” explains Norris. “Typically we’re seeing that hospitals want to do a farm fresh Friday or feature a local farm product every week on their menu.  More and more hospitals are signing onto the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge which is all about committing to the more sustainable care food system.”

When you think about the food needs of a single hospital in your region and the size of their budget it makes sense to send out a few feelers. Are you capable of providing organic local food to your hospital on a consistent basis securing your farm a long term contract? Partnering small growers with local hospitals can help a new farm find its footing.

Take the case of BowHill Blueberries in Skagit Valley, WA, an established farm that is making the switch to fully organic produce and is currently certified “transitional” by the state of Washington. They were looking for a place to sell their blueberries on a larger scale. The University of Washington’s hospital had the majority of their food delivered by Big Ag and its many distributers and weren’t really set up to take on a complete switch to local sustainable product. The folks at Northwest Agriculture Business Center brought the two together. Because blueberries need little preparation (wash and freeze) they were the ideal product for this hospital in transition. They sit beside the breakfast bar as an accompaniment to the yoghurts and cereals. Instead of the single baskets the BowHill folks sell on the farm, they are now selling their transitional product by the truck load.

Another part of the HFHC program is the Local and Sustainable Purchasing Initiative. HCWH is fully aware of the impact hospital food purchasing decisions can have on a local community and their program is an opportunity for health care providers to place sustainable food sources at the top of their buy list. For a food to qualify as local under the program it must be procured within a 250 mile radius of the hospital. This makes the program ideal for farms both within the city limits and out in the surrounding countryside.

As conventional food sources increase pollutants in our environment it makes logical sense that hospitals be the ones to make the change. As HCWH explains: “Sustainably-produced foods are not just an absence of unhealthy inputs, but are more broadly defined as being of minimal harm to the environment, healthy for consumers and producers, fair in terms of wages and working conditions for farmers and farm workers, respectful of animal welfare, and supportive of the economic well-being and sustainability of communities, rural and urban. Local food procurement is a key component of sustainable purchasing.”

The hospitals receive an education on how they impact their local environment and what small steps they can take to start making positive changes. These include having farmer’s markets on hospital grounds, reducing meat consumption by 20 percent, switching to sustainable meat, increasing access to and signage for public drinking water, eliminating bottled water and sugar sweetened drinks and of course, sourcing food locally.

One of the case studies on the HCWH website shows that a hospital in Oregon serves 10,000 meals a day. That’s 10,000 chances to buy local, choose sustainable and educate people on eating for preventative health. That’s purchasing power most of us could never imagine. Hospitals may be the key to transitioning the nation away from processed foods, force Big Ag to make some major changes in order to stay competitive and provide security to the fragile culture of sustainable agriculture.

When a single family pledges to buy local, eat organic and reduce waste and pollutants in their lives the impact is wonderful but limited. When a hospital that employs hundreds and treats thousands makes a pledge to a more sustainable lifestyle, the impact can be tremendously far reaching. By partnering with institutions that pledge sustainability and looking beyond the traditional CSA and farmer’s market for sources of income, independent growers can increase their impact and their bottom line.


Health Care Without Harm

Healthy Foods in Health Care

Northwest Agriculture Business Center

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