Today I’m dishing up a feel-good story. While poring through a review copy of EatingWell in Season: The Farmers’ Market Cookbook (the source of that great spinach soup from a few weeks ago), I learned about Dr. Preston Maring, who penned the introduction.
Maring is an ob/gyn, who’s been practicing at the Kaiser Permanente (KP) medical center in Oakland, Calif. since 1971. These days, he wears a few other hats -- as Associate Physician-in-Chief --- and farm-to-table champion. In 2003, Maring started up a farmers’ market in the hospital parking lot, making it the first of its kind. Held year-round every Friday, Maring’s market, which is run in partnership with a northern California farmers’ market association, is completely organic. It has helped to spawn markets at 29 other KP hospitals throughout California, and in Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon. KP also sponsors markets in Atlanta, Ga., as well as two in the DC area (at KP campuses in Reston and Fair Oaks, Va.; a market in Baltimore is also slated to open in July).
For staff who can’t make it to the Friday market, Maring has thought of them, too. A few years ago, he launched a CSA (community-supported agriculture)-style program, which offers delivery of a weekly box of local produce to medical offices. He’s also spearheaded efforts to change the face of hospital food, substituting the dreaded institutional slop on a tray for produce from nearby family farms.
I caught up Maring last week by phone; below, notes from our conversation.
What inspired you to start the first market?
It just struck me unless you make good health easy in a community, it's just not going to happen. I looked at the 3000 employees at my medical center, in Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in America. In fact, 77 languages are spoken on staff. If we were going to reach people, why not bring it where so many congregate. And good food is so fundamental to prevention and good health.
We were looking to serve staff, but also the surrounding community, people living in neighborhoods without access to supermarket sometimes. I’ll never forget that first Friday. A woman came up to me and asked me how much longer the market would be open. She wanted to drop off her husband at the ER, then come back for the strawberries.
Tell me about the hospital food.
Three years ago, in the fall of 2005, we said, ‘Fine, we have farm markets, which are good for the community and staff, now what about the inpatients?’ We were shipping in a ton of red seedless grapes from Chile, for example, for hospital meals. That’s 7,000 miles to bring in red seedless grapes, and red seedless grapes are grown about 100 miles down the valley. We found these kinds of examples over and over in our purchasing, so we partnered up with the Community Alliance of Family Farmers (which is based in Davis, Calif.) in the summer of 2006, starting out with 12, maybe 15 farmers.
Now, local produce is making its way into 6,000 meals a day at 20 Kaiser Permanente hospitals in northern California. By the end of 2006, 25 tons of food of the food we buy came from small family farms; by the end of 2008, it was 100 tons out of a total of 250 tons. We’re now working with 100 farmers. Patients began to notice a fresh peach in the middle of July on their tray or an organic cherry tomato on their salad.
This is certainly exciting news, but why, and maybe this is a rhetorical question – is healthy, farm-based hospital food more of an exception than the rule?
Well, more hospitals are catching on. Check out the work that Health Care Without Harm is doing; they’ve gotten 239 hospitals across the country to take a “healthy food pledge.” The work we did at Kaiser had influence of what's since happened. It helped start the conversation, which has gotten pretty loud now in health care.
If you had five minutes with President Obama, what would you say to him about the health of Americans? What would be your recommendations?
The health care pyramid as it is today has tertiary care at the top and primary care at the base, and the U.S. spends its money on the top. The money runs out before all the primary care gets funded. Unless we put a focus on a healthy food system under the base of the pyramid and prevent disease rather than treat it, we'll never have enough money to pay for it. You've got to have a healthy food system. There needs to be a focus on prevention; if we could reach children and begin to turn the tide on obesity, we would have a future population of people who had a much greater chance of living healthier and more productive lives. Health starts with the health of the community, which includes good food, good exercise and safe communities around them to make them possible.
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