Farm-to-Institution Purchasing: Not as Easy as the Hospital Saying, Hey Farmer! I Want Your Goods

A happenstance mention at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market tipped me off about the Michigan Food Hub Network/Farm to Institution Network’s Joint Meeting…which was taking place two days later in Flint. Considering my two-week stint here at The Farm at St. Joe’s, which manifests the farm to institution spirit via its presence at the hospital’s weekly farmers market, this conference seemed like a prime opportunity to broadly survey the goings-on of this Michigan scene.

So on a Thursday morning back in July, I motored up to the meeting site at the Flint Farmers Market—an unexpected 50-vendor indoor market building (with an outdoor market space to boot) that was jam-packed for a weekday morning. The indoor section was not only filled with the typical stalls spilling fruits and vegetables, but food and flower vendors elevated the breadth of options akin to those offered by year-round markets in larger cities, such as Cleveland’s West Side Market or Philly’s Reading Terminal Market.

The meeting was sequestered in a large double height space punctuated with windows to the sides and HVAC ductwork above. While the airy environment provided ample natural light and a pleasant site for the meeting, it lacked in the acoustics department, so I wasn’t always able to fully make out what the speakers were saying—even when they used microphones, which echoed into the ether.

That said, highlights of the meeting included:

  • A short presentation about the Michigan Good Food Fund, which will provide low interest loans financing healthy food production, distribution, processing, and retail products that benefit underserved populations across the state
  • A delicious streusel-topped blueberry muffin from Crust, a local bakery with a stall in the market, served alongside local Michigan bing cherries
  • Stories from Flint’s rebranding itself as a paradigm of local food innovation, including the Flint Food System Navigator, Flint Food Works’ commercial kitchen space in the Flint Farmers Market, Food Corps’ presence in Flint, Hoophouses for Health’s farm to school collaborations, and Genesys Hospital System’s on-site flower and ag incubator
  • Two $5 gift certificates for each meeting participant to purchase lunch while supporting the Market (thus also forgoing the need for catering the meeting)
  • Facilitated group discussions based on regional opportunities and challenges in local markets.

The most insightful presentation, however, was the one I was initially least enthusiastic about, a panel discussion entitled “Demystifying Food Safety.” Food safety, I thought—what a snoozefest! Why is this on the docket for the day considering all you have to do is better connect farmers with the institutions who’ll procure from them?

WRONG, I learned. Two of the panelists in particular elucidated the importance of the safety of farm products in institutional markets. First, Maureen Husek, Director of Nutrition and Retail Services at Beaumont Hospital – Royal Oak, emphasized the fact that her hospital—which serves 5 million meals a year to some of the most fragile people to eat food—is responsible for keeping these patients safe. Food safety requirements—including the quality of the food supply, she noted—are therefore taken very seriously. As a result, most of Beaumont’s foods are purchased from large distributors like Gordon, Sysco, and US Foods. “The food is assured to be safe when it arrives, and then it’s our responsibility to make sure it stays safe,” Husek said. Although Husek’s prime concern is assuring that the food is safe, she also mentioned that Beaumont is working to achieve compliance with the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), which requires participating hospitals to spend at least 15% of total food dollar purchases on local/sustainable foods. The balance between these aims comes via Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, as Husek stated that she only purchases from GAP certified farms for food that will be used in patient meals.

Vicki Zilke of Zilke Vegetable Farm in Milan spoke next, introducing herself as a former nurse practitioner who now, alongside her husband as a farmer, ensures safety and patient health in a different way through their 30 acre farm and food aggregator/hub. Zilke expounded on her experience achieving GAP certification, which allows her to sell produce to Beaumont Hospital for use in its patient trays. The most important aspect, she explained, was her ability to write the farm’s food safety plan—which most farmers find to be a limiting factor in trying to achieve certification. Although a few food safety plan “builders” exist online, the farmer I sat next to confided that she doesn’t have the skillset, let alone the time, to craft this herself, like Zilke did. Once again, my eyes were opened to the logistical difficulties in farm-to-institution purchasing.

Perhaps in-house hospital farms, like The Farm here at St. Joe’s, are a means of bridging this gap? Here’s a timely Civil Eats blog post, which mentions The Farm and Lisa McDowell, RD, Director of Nutrition at St. Joe’s: Are Hospital Farms the Next Big Thing in Healthcare Reform?

Written by Nora White, MPH, University of Michigan dietetic intern