Policies and Profits: The Power of Institutional Markets for Farmers

Published May 15, 2013 
Northwest Agriculture Business Center Blog

After four grueling days in labor with her first child, Kathy Pryor’s best friend gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby boy. Because of the long and difficult delivery, Mom hadn’t really eaten in days. The nurses recommended a salad or some fruit to begin with — nothing too heavy right away. Kathy looked over the in-patient hospital menu options with her friend, and found mostly burgers and fried food. There was literally nothing available that met the recommendations from hospital staff. Kathy had to drive miles away from the hospital campus to find a meal suitable for her friend, captive in the hospital. When she returned with organic fruit, fresh vegetables, and healthful deli salads from a nearby grocery store the nurses asked, “Wow, where’d you get that?”

This was an experience fraught with irony for Kathy. She works with Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care initiative helping hospitals replace unhealthy menu offerings with better options. By guiding hospital foodservice staff through goal setting and better sourcing, Kathy helps healthcare institutions serve their institutional missions, and doctors’ Hippocratic oaths to “first, do no harm” more holistically. Given her line of work, she wasn’t surprised by the lack of appropriate options for her friend in the hospital.

A lack of healthful menu options is unfortunately not uncommon at hospitals and other institutions, and in many ways this makes sense. The primary function of institutions like hospitals, universities, senior centers, and childcare facilities is not to feed people. Arguably, these facilities are preoccupied serving their primary mission: treating sickness, educating young adults, and caring for society’s young and elderly.

At the same time it doesn’t seem to make very much sense that healthcare facilities serve food that contributes to the very ailments they treat; that schools from pre-k through college are not serving food to facilitate the best learning; and that senior care programs fail to recognize the role of diet in overall health and wellness in older age. And indeed the tides are changing. More and more (especially with the rise in severity and prevalence of diet-related disease), institutions are paying more and more attention to food.

Kathy currently supports 23 hospitals in Washington who have taken the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, as well as others who want to commit to sourcing local and sustainable food for patients and staff, and directing their purchasing power to support healthy food systems. Two Washington hospitals won national awards at CleanMed, HCWH’s national conference, for their efforts and success with these programs. Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue took second place in the nation in Sustainable Food Procurement, and University of Washington Medical Center (Seattle) took third place nationally in both Sustainable Food Procurement and Food-Climate-Health Connection. In 2011 United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley earned second place in the nation for their local and sustainable food purchasing. This is all good news for Washington farmers, who are supplying more and more food to area institutions.

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