Cultivating Care in Our Food System

Healthy, Accessible, Sustainable Food for All

Did you know that on average, a hospital spends 1 to 7 million dollars annually on its food and beverage purchases?

That is tremendous purchasing power. Tremendous purchasing power equates to a tremendous opportunity to make a difference. Collectively, our healthcare institutions can wield their purchasing power to help foster a sustainable food system. Focusing millions of purchasing dollars on healthy, sustainably produced food is an investment in clean air, water, and an overall healthier environment. Institutions have the opportunity to invest in a culture of health

The central fact is this — everyone should have access to healthy, fresh, locally produced food. Whether at home, school, work, or a hospital, healthy, fresh food should be readily available. Serving fresh locally produced food within our healthcare system should be the norm, not the anomaly.

Through the work of our Farm to Institution program, we're helping institutions, such as schools, universities, hospitals, healthcare facilities and corrections facilities,  develop a healthy sustainable food system.  By helping institutions source local food while also helping farmers and food suppliers produce the foods that institutions are looking for, the Ecology Center acts as a veritable matchmaker. Helping to cultivate the necessary connections and relationships builds the foundation for which a sustainable food system can thrive. This program bolsters local and regional agriculture, addresses widespread issues such diet-related diseases, food insecurity, and affordable access to healthy food throughout our community.

Lindsey Scalera currently leads the program. Lindsey’s pursuit to ensure that all communities have affordable access to healthy fresh food began in 2008. Her efforts were inspired by the realization that “everybody eats and that people, plants, and animals are all part of an ecological system and therefore share a stake in that system’s sustainability.” In 2009, she established the Giving Garden at Eastern Michigan University, and seven years later, she became the director of Ecology Center’s Farm to Institution program and the co-lead of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network. 

Over the past decade, much progress has been made within our food system. People are more likely to think about where their food is coming from and how it was grown. Even with the heightened demand for local food, there is still a need for greater transparency within the food system — transparency regarding where food is coming from, who produced it and by what methods. Increased transparency would make it easier for interested institutions to implement sustainable food practices. However, the need for greater transparency presents some challenges.

Our food system is enormous, even when broken down into local regions. It will take the involvement of concerned citizens, community leaders, governments, institutions, producers, distributors, and nonprofit organizations, such as the Ecology Center, to make a noticeable impact. The Ecology Center's Farm to Institution program works in collaboration with two very important partnerships: Health Care Without Harm, a collaborative campaign for environmentally responsible health care made up of more than 250 organizations; and the Michigan Farm to Institution Network. Through these collaborations, we’ve engaged hundreds of advocates throughout the state, all working together to educate, engage, and empower institutions, farmers, producers, distributors, purchasers, and community leaders in order to cultivate a food system that cares about everyone affected by it, with fair food and fair practices. This means that farmers are paid a fair price, that institutions are financially able to sustain their food practices, and most importantly, that healthy food is made available for everyone, from the most affluent to our most vulnerable communities.

Our work with Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) goes back many years; Ecology Center was a co-founder of the organization. While we collaborate with HCWH on a number of initiatives, our Farm to Institution work focuses on supporting hospitals and health care systems in their commitments to purchase local and sustainable food products. This includes our “better meat” campaign, which encourages hospitals to use their purchasing power to commit to purchasing meat raised without the misuse of antibiotics, addressing the serious issue of antibiotic resistance due to unsustainable meat production practices.

The Michigan Farm to Institution Network was launched in 2014 along with our local purchasing campaign, Cultivate Michigan, as a space for learning, sharing and working together to get more local food to institutions. In the short term, we aim to help institutions meet the Michigan Good Food Charter goal of sourcing 20% Michigan food by 2020. Over the long term, we want to see healthy, local foods on the menus of schools, hospitals, colleges, and other institutions.

Currently, through the Cultivate Michigan program, 104,104 meals are being served per day in 46 participating institutions. This includes 11 hospitals, 2 long-term care facilities, 27 schools and districts, 4 early childhood programs, and 2 colleges and universities. Momentum for the movement is building as more lives benefit from access to good food. 

 “Institutions have tremendous purchasing power, which they can leverage to affect changes in the food system. The same way consumer demand for sustainable and local foods has grown so has the demand for these foods to be served in places like schools, colleges, and hospitals. Many institutions have made commitments like Cultivate Michigan’s 20 percent locally sourced food by 2020 goal. As of late, much of our time has been spent facilitating the necessary connections between institutions, farmers, and distributors, and supporting the increase of available local and sustainable foods in order to meet the demand.” –Lindsey Scalera 

“Tremendous purchasing power” is not an overstatement. If we were to reach our goal of sourcing 20 percent local Michigan food by 2020, 200 thousand to 1.4 million dollars per hospital could be spent supporting a local, sustainable food system, i.e., local farmers, distributors, producers and workers. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that is as good for local economies as it is for the health of our communities. So while the primary motivation for this work is to cultivate healthy people and a healthy planet, healthy economies are also supported. 

Although there is much work on the road ahead, much has been accomplished already. Bronson Healthcare in southwest Michigan is a prime example of what can be accomplished by making local purchasing a top priority. Not only have they met the Michigan Good Food Chapter goal; they’ve exceeded that goal and are sourcing 33% of their food locally.  Education, engagement, perseverance, relationship building and collaboration were essential to making this happen. Healthcare institutions like Bronson are leading the way toward a sustainable food system that supports prevention-based health care.

Diet-related disease is a leading cause of preventable illness and death in our country. Providing healthy food at the very place one seeks health is vital. It is clear that health and a healthy food system are unequivocally connected. Designing and building a sustainable food system is not only a requisite for a healthy future, it’s entirely achievable.


Published on July 26, 2016