When I joined the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative Food System Work Group this past year, I think I heard some snickers when I described my work. As the Healthy Food in Health Care Program Director at the Ecology Center, I try to build a healthier food system with the help of the hospitals. While everyone understood the purchasing power of the health-care sector, more than 17 percent of GDP, I could imagine what folks were thinking: “Healthy, good food in hospitals? No way.”
That’s when I knew I was in the right place at the right time. While Detroit’s food movement has exploded, not many know that health-care facilities, in Detroit and across the country, are recognizing that the modern, industrialized, commodified food system is misaligned with healthy eating, and is an environmental catastrophe, too.
But in the last two to three years, we have seen hospitals scrapping their deep fryers, launching farmers’ markets and even their own farms, and buying tons of fresh, local and sustainable food.
Here in Michigan, an initiative launched by the Michigan Health & Hospital Association has gotten nearly universal buy-in among hospitals to a commitment to buy 20 percent of their food from Michigan growers and producers. These hospitals include major local players like the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System.
Last week, a physician from the DMC told me about some of the progress they’ve made. Among other initiatives, DMC held picnics every Friday during the summer, offering veggie burgers and water at a lower price than the standard burger and pop. The hospital also partnered with Detroit’s Eastern Market to sell fresh produce at their facilities, a win-win-win: farmers had a new market to sell their produce, hospital staff members had readily accessible fresh produce to buy, and hospital management was able to support a project that promoted healthier eating among employees.
Henry Ford is also partnering with Eastern Market to host a monthly traveling farm stand at each hospital in the health system. It also offered the Green Ribbon Collaborative’s Fresh Food Share for employees, supporting local farmers and promoting seasonal buying and environmentally responsible farm management.
Both hospitals are also working with Wayne State University on a “buy Detroit” strategy. Combined, they spend $1.6 billion a year, and small shifts in purchasing could mean millions of dollars for local businesses to expand and create jobs.
So don’t snicker anymore when someone mentions that you might find good, healthy food in a hospital. This is good news for patients, for visitors and for the more than 30,000 employees of these health systems in the Detroit area alone. Health care is emerging as a major factor in supporting a local, sustainable food system, boosting both economic development and public health.
And that’s no joke.