Institutional Food with Taste

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Gwenda Kaczor /

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.

By early 2008, a year after Ronstrom had launched the local food initiative, Beckler was frustrated: “My time line was waning. My CEO wanted local food–now.” For a year, Beckler had been spinning his wheels trying to contract for it.

At the closing session of an Eau Claire agriculture conference in early 2008, he vented to a room full of farmers: “I have more than $200,000 to spend on local food. Do any of you want a piece of that action?” Then he stalked out of the hall.

One of the people hurrying after him was farmer Pam Herdrich, who at the time also coordinated the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council. Talk about frustrated: The council had failed three times in the previous 10 years to launch a local food program in its 12-county region.

As Herdrich recounts it, the farmers couldn’t provide goods in the sizes and volume the institutions wanted, and when the buyers backed away from further involvement, the farmers found themselves stuck with no market for their ramped-up production.

“The institutions weren’t committed to working things out,” Herdrich says. “That caused a lot of the distrust that Rick faced.”

Sacred Heart helped launch a new model that tries to meet the needs of both the kitchen and the farm. That venture–the Producers & Buyers Co-op–has been crucial in procuring the farm products sold to the hospital. The co-op requires that producers treat their animals humanely and follow organic standards. Prices are based on farmer profitability. It also brings together farmers, institutions, and the food processors who are indispensible to a functioning local food system.

Rather than buying from individual producers, Beckler now buys from the co-op he helps run. And his cooks are astonished, says Beckler. “The look, the smell, the texture–even the cookability–of the local chicken is far superior to the product that comes off the big-box truck.”

What’s most heartening about the Eau Claire experiment is its grassroots nature. Out of necessity, activists are rebuilding a local food system that all but disappeared after World War II. Their challenge is daunting: Kitchen staff in large institutions may no longer have cooking skills or even rudimentary kitchen tools.

“Everything comes pre-chopped, bagged, and frozen,” says Erica Zerr, a consultant who works with Beckler’s co-op. “It becomes a royal nightmare to chop butter­nut squash or slice watermelon.”

The fact that the co-op pegs its prices to farmer profitability is a powerful draw for producers who otherwise live or die according to the swings of the Chicago Board of Trade. So far, 20 farmers and processors have joined. A newly secured $55,000 federal grant will fund efforts to reach potential new members. On the buyers’ side, Sacred Heart’s sister facility in nearby Chippewa Falls, as well as its Eau Claire competitor, Mayo Clinic-owned Luther Midelfort, have joined the co-op.

For Sacred Heart, the higher cost translates to a 15 to 20 percent premium for local food, according to Beckler. No one seems to be complaining. A PR consultant reported that the national coverage the little hospital has gained in Forbes, in the Wall Street Journal, and in trade outlets translates to a publicity value of $1.5 million. Indeed, Ronstrom and Beckler have become go-to sources nationally on local food.

Ronstrom mentions none of this in an interview. With quiet intensity he emphasizes how local food bolsters family farms, keeps money in the community, creates jobs, and fulfills the Franciscan sisters’ vision of holistic health.

“Local food is good medicine for every­one,” he says.

Excerpted from The Progressive (Nov. 2010), a must-read monthly that has covered peace and social justice issues since 1909.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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