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UH’s pilot produce program grows healthy habits

Cleveland Crain’s Business
By: Kathy Ames Carr

John Kado was at the pediatric clinic last year with his then 5-year-old daughter Destiny Hall when her doctor suggested she consume more leafy greens. As it turns out, local foods provider Fresh Fork Market was out in the waiting room, distributing discounted bags of produce to patients at University Hospitals’ main campus.

“The local food was delicious, nutritious and less expensive than the stuff at the neighborhood grocery store,” Kado said. “They gave us recipes with our produce, and my daughter just can’t get enough of the kale smoothies we make.”

UH’s Healthy Harvest pilot program — which seeks to encourage the consumption of healthier foods by pediatric and prenatal patients — is likely to expand food distribution to two times a week at multiple clinics, beginning in May, as part of the health system’s larger strategy to introduce patients to more locally grown foods.

“Many of our patients come from food deserts, and we want to help them access more fresh, local and sustainable food,” said Dr. Meg Oberle, a resident physician and program organizer at UH.

Throughout Northeast Ohio, hospitals are ramping up efforts to incorporate into their menus more fruits, vegetables and other bounty supplied by producers located within 250 miles of their doors.

University Hospitals, for example, is aiming by 2016 to reduce by 20% its annual meat purchases and to increase by 20% both healthy beverage purchases and spending on locally grown foods under the national Healthier Hospitals initiative. Within the last three years, UH has been using locally grown lettuce at various locations throughout the health system, established a farmers market at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, and allowed local farmers to operate retail stands at satellite campuses.

Matthew Pietro, sustainability specialist at UH, said the use of local produce “ties into our environmental priorities because fewer miles are traveled to deliver the products.”

“The fruits and vegetables are more nutritionally dense, and we’re supporting the local economy,” Pietro said.
Growing pains

Hospitals not only are responding to the public’s demand for healthier foods, but also are acknowledging their purchasing decisions can play a large role in promoting healthier diets and influencing how well patients fare.

But even small shifts to local food purchasing come with obstacles.

“A major limitation for us is being able to find a producer who can consistently meet our volume demands,” said Dr. Michael Roizen, chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.

“Two years ago, we purchased every available apple we could find that was grown within a 155-mile radius, and we still couldn’t find enough sustainably produced apples” to meet the Clinic’s needs, Roizen said.

Nonetheless, the region’s largest health care provider still has made considerable inroads since it signed in 2008 the national Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge to reduce the environmental impact of its food service operations. In just one year, the Clinic in 2013 boosted its local food purchasing to 23% of its total food purchases from 12% in 2012. Among the 30-plus local food companies from which the Clinic buys products are Huron-based Chef’s Garden and Cleveland-based Orlando Baking Co., along with smaller operations such as Crooked River Coffee Co. in Cleveland.

“We’re constantly pushing our vendors to do more locally,” Roizen said. “Our main criteria is that the vendor is set up to meet quality and safety requirements. Farmers usually don’t have a problem with that. The main issue is product availability.”

A possible solution to meeting hospitals’ demands for more food from local sources is the establishment of more large-scale sustainable farming operations, such as Green City Growers in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.

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