Hospitals dishing up healthier food items

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LANSING — Chef Frank Turner buys local and organic food every Wednesday from a farmers market a few yards from where he works.

Turner uses tomatoes, greens, onions, squash and other produce from approximately 18 vendors who set up each week on the grounds of Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield. The meals he creates from the fresh food aren’t served to restaurant patrons. They’ll most likely be enjoyed by someone in bed, because Turner is executive chef of the hospital and his customers are patients.

“Fresh is just a lot healthier for you than something that has traveled 1,800 miles,” Turner said. “I design our menus from a chef’s perspective, so what I am serving a patient, I would be proud to serve at a restaurant three miles down the street.”

In June, the hospital farmers market began as an opportunity for local food to reach Detroit-area consumers and hospital employees, visitors and patients.

Its efforts aren’t unique. In fact, Henry Ford is one of 260 hospitals promising to support sustainable food. Health Care Without Harm, an organization promoting ecological practices in health care institutions, began the “Health Food in Health Care” pledge three years ago.

It represents a commitment to work with local farmers and community-based food suppliers, to minimize food waste and to provide more sustainable and healthier food choices.

“Hospitals should have a vested interest in improving ecological, community and global health because they are all interrelated,” said Jamie Harvie, food coordinator with Health Care without Harm, which is based in Arlington, Va. “It’s a way of thinking holistically at a global level.”

Harvie said such a commitment signals the entire health care market to change.

“What we are finding is that facilities are signing the pledge without us even knowing,” he said.

Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Chelsea Community Hospital in Chelsea and Metro Health Hospital based in Wyoming have signed the pledge.

About 65 percent of Bronson’s employees buy shares of seasonal produce from a local farmer, according to Grant Fletcher, Bronson’s food service manager.

The hospital also hosts a winter farmer’s market every other Friday and is beginning to compost its waste.

“I think it’s about doing anything and everything we can do to promote responsibly raised meat and locally grown produce,” Fletcher said. “It’s about keeping the money as local as possible and supporting our growers in any way we can.”

Buying strictly local products raises challenges for large institutions like hospitals.

“We would love to do things like offer grass-fed hamburger year-round, but we really, to this point, have only found one provider who can even come close to meeting the demand,” Fletcher said. “If we only served grass-fed beef, we would require something in the range of 50 cows a year, which is an astounding amount to most farmers.”

Making only seasonal purchases also affects the supply of certain items. “When lettuces are in season, all our mixed greens will be local,” Turner said. “But in December, Michigan is just not going to have organic strawberries.”

Henry Ford supplements its local purchases by buying from organic farms across the country. It’s a new strategy of food distribution, usually not practiced by public institutions. Schools, prisons and hospitals often employ purchasing organizations to provide food.

Officials at Aramark, a Philadelphia-based national food supplier for health care institutions, the military, schools and businesses, have noticed the demand for sustainable food on a wide scale. A recent Aramark survey found that 20 percent of its customers believe that offering sustainable products is extremely important, while 26 percent said that supporting local providers is important.

Aramark officials see local and sustainable food as a business opportunity.

“There isn’t much that a hospital could ask us that we couldn’t provide, whether it is using particular food stuffs or cleaning products,” said David Penkala, senior director of customer insights for Aramark’s health care division.

Harvie, of Health Care without Harm, said she believes the spread of healthier food in hospitals will eventually become the norm, predicting, “It’s going to be more of the status quo.”

And Henry Ford’s Turner said that among institutions endorsing healthy food, hospitals are an obvious place.

“As a health care institution, nutrition is paramount,” he said. “After all, we are in the business of health care, not sick care.”

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