The day when hospital patients can wake up to a morning breakfast of juicy blueberries, sweet cantaloupe and sun-kissed oranges has arrived for several Bay Area hospitals. UC Davis researchers are encouraging public institutions to add fresh produce from local farms and food markets to their menus.
Elizabeth Sachs, a graduate student in international agricultural development, and Gail Feenstra, UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute food systems analyst, co-authored a report based on their research entitled “Emerging Local Food Purchasing Initiatives in Northern California Hospitals” on their research. They found a growing movement for public institutions such as hospitals, institutions for disabled people, jails and schools to purchase local food.
Boosting local food purchasing by public institutions serves to create a new market for small and middle-sized farms. Sachs said, “Rural development found the most quickly disappearing farmers are the mid-farmers, they are too small to tap into the commodity market. There is a lot of research that [says] these farms are very important.”
Smaller farms face the problem of finding public accessibility when it has to compete against large farms that work with mainstream grocery stores.
“If you have a small organic farm with uneven sizes of carrots, they have a hard time selling to large food market such as Safeway,” said Lyra Halprin, public information representative of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
“Selling at farmers markets or institutions … is how small and middle-sized farms can do well. If institutions open up, it gives people farming in the middle options how to sell and how to market [their produce],” she said.
The addition of fresh local market produce to public institutions not only benefits smaller farms in having larger public accessibility, it also increases healthy diets in patients and employees of the institutions. The health care institution has been a particular target due to its ability to influence large populations of society.
“The health care institution has a large role to play in society. A growing voice for better eating habits will promote better modeling [of those habits],” Sachs said.
Habits are not easy to change, but a step towards improving health habits is by improving the food people ingest.
“There is a lot of evidence that nutritionists know that a large part of increasing better health habits is increasing nutrition in people’s diets, and local foods that are fresh picked are more attractive, diverse and appealing encourages people to eat healthier. People would rather eat attractive food than some wilting greens,” she said.
Hospitals such as John Muir Medical Health System facilities and Kaiser Permanente have begun replacing frozen fruits and vegetables with fresh produce grown in farms around the Bay Area.
John Muir Health System public relations associate Deniene Erickson sent a press release by e-mail detailing John Muir’s new initiative to “raise awareness about health, the environment and the importance of using locally sustainably produced foods” by “offering … fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season and locally grown, including an increase in whole grain foods” among several movements.
Another benefit for increasing the amount of local food market produce is knowledge of where the food comes from and how the food is produced.
“From a health standpoint, the public is given more information and choice. People have been more worried about food safety issues, and there is an increased interest as to where and how [food] is grown, and what practices are used. If you do prefer less chemically-produced [food], produce sourced locally has more transparency in their supply,” Sachs said.
Local and national groups are working to make the trend toward increasing local produce in public institutions a national one.
“San Francisco Physicians for Social Responsibility are working with Healthcare Without Harm doing a lot of nationally organized work with hospitals to change their procurement and [be able to obtain] meats with less hormone and produce with less pesticide,” Feenstra said.
WENDY WANG can be reached at email@example.com