By Taylar Foster
How can a hospital contribute to the Northeast Kingdom’s food system?
Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital (NVRH) in St. Johnsbury does so by sourcing locally made food from regional producers, offering educational programming to improve eating and cooking knowledge, and collaborating on innovative and new endeavors to secure access to food for those most in need, which are all goals of the Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.
NVRH is one of five health care facilities partnering with the Vermont Food Bank on its pilot VeggieVanGo program.
In 2008, NVRH received a grant to supplement the cost of purchasing vegetables directly from a farmer. Over the three-year funding period, the grant was reduced until the hospital was able to continue on its own. Today, the hospital sources locally made products without any noticeable increase in food costs, demonstrating that institutional buyers are able to adapt to a different purchasing model.
NVRH participates in the Vermont Working Group for Healthy Food in Healthcare. This group defines local food as coming from a 250-mile radius. For NVRH, this means buying dairy products, eggs, and apples from within 250-miles. Within a 20-mile radius, organic vegetables from Harvest Hill Farm (Walden), beef from Tamarlane Farm (Lyndonville), and maple syrup from Elouise Pearl (Barnet) appear in meals at the hospital. Food Service also works to locate foods processed locally such as grain products. The hospital’s search is open for new growers, with plans to source mushrooms from a local grower in the works.
Partners in Healthy Food
While buying and serving healthy (and local) food is one part of NVRH’s healthy community vision, so too are the ideas that all people should have access to healthy food. This is why NVRH is one of five health care facilities partnering with the Vermont Food Bank on its pilot VeggieVanGo program.
VeggieVanGo is a healthy food initiative to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to people who are food insecure where and when it is most needed. With hospitals as a delivery site, program organizers are able to work with doctors and staff to identify patient and employee families who are experiencing hunger and “prescribe” fresh vegetables and a more nutritious diet.
The program started in January 2016, with 40 people utilizing VeggieVanGo. By April, that number was 145. Winter vegetables, such as squash, cabbage, potatoes, and onions, plus fruits such as apples, oranges, and melons, have been available, so far. While this program is designed for people who may have trouble stretching their food budget, participants do not need to demonstrate that they qualify for the benefit.
NVRH provides community health and wellness resources to help all members of the community commit to healthy lifestyles. This includes a three-part cooking class for people with chronic conditions and offering a community grant that can be used to fund projects such as stocking food shelves or education sessions on preparing children’s packed lunches.
Challenges and Ability to Replicate
NVRH sees its commitment to supporting the local economy and developing relationships with farmers as part of leading by example: by creating a healthy environment for employees, visitors, and patients and making available good jobs for employees, other institutions and employers can do the same.
This does not come without challenges. For NVRH, the senior management team is supportive of taking a holistic approach to a healthy community. Without this support, staff would not be able to be creative.
Creative new initiatives and partnerships, such as VeggieVanGo, make space constraints a challenge. VeggieVanGo is only able to come once a month, on a Thursday morning. Patients and customers may not be accustomed to eating a wholesome diet; some have found it less satisfying and desirable, not understanding the benefits. To combat this challenge, the hospital strives to make meals delicious and nutritious.
As NVRH grows its local buying, the director of food service struggles with a different set of challenges. Cost and a reliable local supply can be difficult to plan meals around. Ordering from multiple vendors and produce coming in whole from growers add new levels of complexity to food preparation.
These challenges are not insurmountable and part of NVRH’s success is that it is replicable to other institutions.
NVRH is creating its own food system: sourcing NEK-produced food, composting food scraps in the region, offering CSA pick-ups on-site to employees, providing the infrastructure to house a Vermont FoodBank food share program, and promoting food and lifestyle educational access resulting in healthier patients, customers, and community members. While there are challenges to this systemic approach, NVRH offers a replicable model for other institutions.
The Northeast Kingdom Food System Plan is under development. This story will be included in the Plan (draft scheduled for release July 2016) to showcase the contributions of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital to the Northeast Kingdom’s food system.
Thanks to Laural Ruggles, Vice-President of Marketing and Community Health Improvement and Ginny Flanders, Director of Food Service, for contributing to this piece.
-Taylar Foster is a land use and food systems planner in northern Vermont currently working as the Program Manager for the Northeast Kingdom Food System Plan.