Kaiser implements local produce program

April 21, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's standard procedure in the restaurant business to buy locally-grown produce. But, if Kaiser gets its way fresh fruits and vegetables will be served in hospital rooms.

They've started a food and farm to plate program and it's doing really well. They are buying locally grown produce for their patients. Kaiser officials just thought they'd try it to see what happened and they found a little bit of fresh fruit can make a big difference to a lot of people.

They may as well be preparing slices of chocolate cake. The fresh blood red oranges taste so sweet to the Kaiser Permanente patients who get them on their food trays - fruit suddenly feels like dessert.

"The fresh fruit tastes a lot better than the canned or frozen," said Blanche Coeuille, patient.

The doctors taking care of these patients are convinced these locally grown oranges will help them heal.

"It's real clear to me that what people eat is one of the fundamental determinants for people's overall health," said Preston Maring, M.D., OB/GYN.

And that's why Kaiser decided last year to start buying produce from local farmers whenever possible. Serving fresh food is obviously more expensive than just loading up on the canned stuff - but Kaiser decided to try it anyway. And the move is paying off.

"We recently got results from our patient satisfaction survey and our patients have indicated that they like the fruit - it's a real patient satisfier and our scores have improved as a result of this program," said Jan Sanders, Kaiser's National Nutrition Director.

So they're expanding it; they started off using about 35 tons of fresh, local produce. Now they're up to about 60 tons. The pilot program has worked so well in Northern California - they're also starting to implement it in Southern California. Hospital administrators from other medical centers are now asking how they can bring fresh food to their patients.

"We're able to say here's what we've learned, here are the operational details to which you have to pay attention to make it happen," said Maring.

Roberto Rodriguez says this has greatly improved the health of his business. It will take the Watsonville farmer a whole day at a farmers market to sell just 30 boxes of strawberries. But he can sell 50 to 70 boxes a week to Kaiser - a much quicker sale than sitting at his stand all day. He's had to hire five more employees just to help handle the load.

"When you think about a big corporation like Kaiser, you think well - they should have some big company they do strawberries to. So I was very surprised they gave the opportunity to a small farmer like me," said Roberto Rodriguez, farmer.

Seventy-five California farmers are now getting this opportunity, it started with just 20. And getting fresh food to hospital patients has opened farmer's eyes to unlimited possibilities. Now they're looking in to filling up food trays in schools and universities using the roots Kaiser put in place with this very simple idea of getting fresh food to those who need it.

Canned food still has to be part of their food program, especially in the winter. But now that summer is almost here, patients should start seeing more fresh, locally grown food. And the farmers say this brings one of the best paychecks they've ever received.


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