As Northwest farms continue to expand their direct sales strategies, hospitals have joined the ranks of schools, universities and corporate campuses as large institutional buyers looking for local products.
“Hospitals are an exciting new market for farms,” says Lucy Norris, director of marketing for Northwest Agricultural Business Center. “It makes perfect sense that hospitals would want to serve healthy, delicious and clean food to their patients, employees and visitors. Increasing local food procurement and working directly with farms can be an important way for hospitals to demonstrate their commitment to sustaining a healthy environment, the health of their patients and community and the economic viability of sustainable farms.”
Hospitals in Washington’s King County, which includes Seattle, Bellevue and many neighboring cities, spend an estimated $30 million a year on food and beverages. Nationwide, hospitals are estimated to spend $12 billion per year on food and beverages. The vast majority of their budgets are spent with large distributors, but hospitals are seeking out relationships with local farms they can highlight in their cafeterias, patient meals and catering.
Susan Soltes and her husband purchased Bow Hill Blueberries — the oldest blueberry farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley — in 2011, and began the three-year process of organic certification. They wanted to diversify their sales beyond farmers’ markets, U-pick and their farm store, and are now selling fresh and frozen blueberries to the University of Washington Medical Center, Overlake Hospital, Swedish Medical Center and United General Hospital.
“We’re extremely proud to be served at major hospitals, at the forefront of healing,” says Soltes. Her relationships with the chefs, purchasers and foodservice directors at these hospitals, and her availability through Northwest Agricultural Business Center’s online food hub, have helped her increase sales in other sectors. “The hospitals have really opened doors for us to supply other prestigious institutions like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and the Seahawks.”
Thirty-three of Washington’s 97 hospitals have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, an institutional commitment to serve healthy, local and sustainable foods. Launched by the international non-profit Health Care Without Harm in 2005, the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge attempts to harness the purchasing power and political voice of the healthcare sector to build markets and create policies that support sustainable regional and national food and farming systems. Buying locally grown foods can be one of the most emotionally rewarding aspects of fulfilling their pledge.
“Our mission is to improve the health of staff, patients and community,” says Charles Zielinski, director of food and nutrition at University of Washington Medical Center. “Structuring the food department goals and objectives to parallel the strategic plan of the medical center is always a fundamental objective of the food and nutrition department, so this was a key point in the formulation of our health and wellness strategy.”
What types of foods are hospitals looking for?
“We need mainstream fruits and vegetables and sustainable meats that will appeal to large masses,” says Zielinski. “We need the farmers to pay attention to any way they can provide value-added type services, such as clean and bacteria-free product, HACCP programs in place and the ability to provide us with enough volume on a consistent basis.” HACCP is the acronym for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and refers to maintaining food safety through analyzing and controlling biological, chemical and physical hazards in food as it is handled and processed, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Swedish Health Services’ executive chef Eric Eisenberg agrees. “When we’re planning a menu, we’re not looking into a crystal ball about what’s going to be available. I need to know what’s going to be available a month from now.” Staff training has also been an issue. “In a big organization with a lot of people, I’m not cooking all the food.” Eisenberg looks for local products his staff is familiar with, and will know how to prepare.
Smaller rural hospitals tend to have more flexibility with their menus, and may be a good fit for smaller farms looking for a direct sales relationship. On the Olympic Peninsula, Jefferson Healthcare makes it a point to source organic produce, grains, pork and grass-fed beef from local farms. The hospital’s foundation has even taken the unusual step of offering small loans to new farmers in the winter and spring in exchange for farm credit in the summer and fall.
Hospitals are increasingly concerned with an increase in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, and have begun seeking out meat and poultry products raised without non-therapeutic antibiotics. “With all the recent documentation about antibiotic use and how it is hurting the effectiveness of antibiotics for patient recovery, we are working on a proposal to only serve antibiotic-free poultry and pork,” says Zielinski. “Before we can move forward with this, we need to validate that the new products being considered meet the antibiotic-free criteria. We need more producers of antibiotic-free pork and poultry.”
In the end, successful farm to hospital sales are created like most successful business ventures: a good relationship and a strong product. Zielinski says. “We will form a partnership with the right farmer and right product to create a win-win situation for both parties.”