Institutional Food with Taste
A Wisconsin hospital serves up healthy meals and rebuilds an agricultural network
Gwenda Kaczor / www.gwenda.com
Hospital food: The very term conjures bland and unappetizing images. But that’s changing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000, where Sacred Heart, the smaller of the city’s two hospitals, is spending 10 percent of its food budget on local produce and meat. By industry standards, this does not amount to much—about $200,000 a year. But cracking the institutional market is one of the trickier challenges facing food system reformers, and this 344-bed hospital is showing the way.
Institutional kitchens feed hundreds daily and so are driven by cost, efficiency, and mass production. Purveyors like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo are experts at delivering food products in the perfect portion size.
“We were used to placing an order and having everything come in the door exactly how we wanted it,” says Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart’s director of hospitality services. “We didn’t have a clue where it was produced or who grew it. We didn’t know even what continent it came from.”
Sacred Heart’s kitchen now serves meatloaf made of hamburger from Vic and Mary Price’s Out to Pasture Beef in Fall Creek, chicken from Eileen McCutchen’s Angel Acres in Mason, pork from Jim and Alison Deutsch’s Family Farm near Osseo, and lots of other locally sourced items.
For Sacred Heart’s CEO, Stephen Ronstrom, serving patients local foods connects the dots between his institution’s Franciscan mission, investing in the regional community, and promoting health and wellness. “It’s not New Age to say food is medicine, and what we eat affects our health and longevity,” he says.
Sacred Heart isn’t alone in seeking reform. Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit health group, sponsors more than 35 farmers markets and has partnered with a farm group to provide local produce at 22 of its Northern California facilities. Other hospitals have cracked down on junk-food vending machines, started their own on-site gardens, or followed Sacred Heart’s lead by committing themselves to food from local sources.
Greening the hospital cafeteria—or the school lunchroom, for that matter—isn’t easy. Farmers and food service managers live in different worlds. The infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to connect the two. Creating this connection is where the Eau Claire experiment had its breakthrough.
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