Coming to the Table: Event Unites Healthcare and Food Systems

By Elizabeth Harlow, Ecology Center Staff Writer

Food is powerful. Its production depends upon, reshapes, and ties us to Earth’s land, water, and air. Whether it’s a holiday dinner or a quick lunch, food can nourish bodies, social bonds, cultural traditions, and economic livelihoods. Because food connects so many facets of our lives with our natural and social environments, a broken food system breaks many things along with it, including both human and ecological health.

At the end of June, the Ecology Center and the Detroit Food Policy Network, in partnership with Health Care Without Harm, hosted healthcare and community food systems professionals for a learning and networking event, Harvesting Health: Food as Prevention. The event gathered representatives from 37 organizations around the shared vision of cultivating a healthier food system for Michigan: one that is regional, equitable, sustainable, and that better promotes health before people become sick.

The Harvesting Health event offered a starting point for cross-sector collaborations with profound potential. Ecology Center Sustainable Food Program Director Lindsey Scalera summarizes the scope of change that’s possible: “When the healthcare sector collaborates with community food system initiatives, we can improve healthy food access and address food insecurity and diet-related illnesses while increasing economic growth in local and sustainable agriculture.”

The day’s programming began with an introduction to the Healthy Food Playbook, a new resource to help hospital administrators implement a healthy food orientation in a comprehensive approach to community well-being. It also featured 13 presenters from healthcare and food organizations, who shared specific program examples to inspire and guide the development of new food solutions for resilient, healthy communities.

Presenters talked about issues big and small. They introduced broad principles like the concept of “environmental nutrition,” which defines food’s health according to the sustainability and justice of its entire production and consumption process. They got into nitty-gritty case study details about how to deal with the logistical hiccups that can quickly stymie well-intentioned efforts, from the bureaucracy of institutional payment procedures to the produce package sizes used by small local farms who haven’t been sought out by institutional purchasers in the past. They shared research to inform evidence-based decision making for southeast Michigan, specifically, offering maps of Detroit’s food opportunity deserts and sharing regional resources to make a difference in nourishing children who are food insecure.

After a morning of listening, participants gathered together at the table for a networking lunch and for discussion pods around the some of the day’s core themes and topics: Policy Advocacy for Food & Health, Food Security & Healthy Food Access Interventions, Growing Local Markets, Nutrition Education & Healthy Food Incentives, and Healthy & Local Food For Young Eaters. In reflecting on what they’d gleaned from the day, participants overwhelmingly expressed that they had developed a stronger understanding of food issues. Many attendees reported intention to prioritize food collaborations in future activities, often citing specific connections made with fellow event participants.

Given their mission, hospitals and medical systems have strong incentive to care about the clear connection between public health and our broken food system. Well-documented phenomena include the rise of obesity and diet-related disease, the poor health outcomes associated with food insecurity, the dangers of toxic chemical exposure through food, and the long term public health threats posed by climate change.

Given the influence they often hold as large anchor institutions for their communities, hospitals have unique capacity to effect positive change on the food system. Increasingly, healthcare organizations are working to promote healthy food access as preventative care and to put local and regional choices on their patients’ tables, both in the hospital and out of it. The Ecology Center is facilitating that work by connecting allies.

We believe in a future where safe, healthy food is accessible to everyone through a regional, sustainable and affordable food system. Partnership and collaboration are key to creating that future, and Harvesting Health offered a unique space for organizations to forge connections, to proliferate knowledge, and to move forward together. Like food, cooperation is powerful.

Published on August 30, 2018