A Healthy Start

REAP Food Group plans to make farm-to-health care a reality

Collaboration, partnerships, strategic development—these key ingredients to growth in any economic sector turn out to be equally important to the development of a regional food system that is healthful, just, and both environmentally and economically sustainable.

That also describes the mission of REAP Food Group, and in a recent REAP newsletter we discovered a new direction for that mission that strikes us as the genuine article. REAP’s Buy Fresh Buy Local program is partnering with local farmers and the American Family Children’s Hospital in opening the Farmers’ Market Café this spring.

It is “UW Health System’s first venture into a food operation that emphasizes local and organic ingredients.” In other words, farm-to-table and farm-to-school are about to grow to include farm-to-health care. That’s a big deal.

Nan Peterson, program director of child health advocacy at American Family Children’s Hospital, is quoted in the newsletter as saying, “We have an obligation to ensure the promotion, accessibility and affordability of healthy food choices to aid in patient recovery and to model health and wellness for families and staff.” She describes the connection to local producers as a win-win for all. “It means less travel time for perishables, support for the local economy and our local farmers, less processed food, and improved taste and nutrition.”

Peterson says it adds up to a cultural shift for staff, patients and families. Culture shift, too, is a part of REAP’s work. The organization is in a great position to transfer knowledge and experience in food system development to the health care system. Not that we underestimate the challenge.

Buy Fresh Buy Local program manager Theresa Feiner says working with a major health care provider is much different than other partnerships. “Typically, the Buy Fresh Buy Local program works with food service establishments that are private-sector, independently owned and small-scale,” says Feiner. “Hospitals are much different. They are on tight budgets and rely on large volumes of product that is affordably priced. They also have less menu flexibility and must accommodate patients with diet restrictions.”

Capacity has been one of the biggest hurdles to integrating local, fresh food into health care and other institutional settings. “Hospitals do not have time to aggregate product from a hundred different vendors,” says Feiner. “It isn’t efficient or practical. We also need to make sure farmers are getting a fair dollar amount for their product, which they often do not get when selling to large distributors.”

But Feiner says new momentum and scale potential provide a huge opportunity. “The reason this is so important for our local farmers is not that the Farmers’ Market Cafe will be pushing a large quantity of product—they won’t in the grand scheme of the whole hospital system. It is important because there is a lot of buying potential and room to expand. It is a launching point and way to get farmers involved without
exhausting their supply or promising a volume to the hospital that our local farmers cannot yet supply.”

There are indications other hospitals in the area are interested in similar programs. Feiner clearly views the new partnership with American Family Children’s Hospital as the start of something big. “We view farm-to-health care as the next big push in the local food movement in the Madison area. As support for the local food movement continues to grow, Madison-area hospitals are beginning to take note and see value. We hope the Farmers’ Market Cafe at AFCH will serve as a model for not only UW Hospital, but other hospitals here in Madison as well.”

Indeed, farm-to-health care seems so natural and so important, it’s hard to imagine a twenty-first-century food system without it. Credit to REAP for having the capacity to pursue it.

“This project is really the first of its kind in Madison,” says Feiner, “and we’re really excited to be a part of it. It is only the beginning!”

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.

Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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