The Healing Power of Local Food

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According to chef-activist Joshna Maharaj, hospitals have an opportunity to rebuild their menus to reflect the changing seasons and enjoy the full bounty of the local harvest. “But there’s more to it than this,” she says. “Hospital patients should be fed the most wholesome, nutritious food we can produce. Food should be our first course of treatment in healthcare and locally grown food opens the door for patients to be properly nourished with nutrients from the earth. We need to consider the farmer-to-patient relationship.”

Maharaj, who recently started the Take-Back-the-Tray movement to reconnect food with health, wellness, education and rehabilitation in public institutions, says the best way to leverage local food to improve patient care in healthcare institutions is to maximize the amount of it served to patients. “A more thoughtful, wholesome approach to foodservice in institutions will have a dramatically positive impact on the patient experience, while also supporting medical treatments to encourage healing and wellness.”

But, says Andrea Watson, vice-president, Business Development & Marketing at Mississauga, Ont.-based Nature Knows Inc., in the healthcare industry there’s a crunch. “The need is very apparent as nutrition is key for patients but, sadly, they have the least amount of budget.”

In fact, she says the average hospital food budget is around $7 to $9 per day, per patient. That’s not the only challenge to adding local food to hospital menus, according to Maharaj. “Two of the biggest challenges the healthcare sector faces around local food are the labour investment required to process whole, farm-fresh ingredients and the cost of the food itself. It’s not that local food is expensive but, in comparison to the artificially low spend currently happening on food, local costs more.”

Maharaj says a culture change needs to happen with both the foodservice provider and the hospital. “Before anything else, the culture in healthcare needs to substantially boost the value and priority given to food as a vital requirement in nurturing health. We need to take food much more seriously in healthcare institutions.”

A 2017 report by the Wellesley Institute backs up Maharaj’s beliefs. “No one expects food in public institutions to be gourmet,” says the commentary in Food in Institutional Settings in Ontario: Health Equity Perspectives. “However, we should expect it to be nutritionally adequate, socially and culturally acceptable and safe.”

“Once the healthcare community stands firm in new values around food, what they require of their foodservice operator will have to change,” says Maharaj. “It’s not the third-party operator’s responsibility to lead this — hospitals need to take more responsibility for asserting their own vision for food.”

She says there are a few viable solutions to increase the appearance of local food on hospital menus. “First, start with small changes that are relatively easy to implement,” she says. “Putting whole local apples on patient trays instead of imported apple slices tossed in chemicals and packed in plastic is a great start.” Other easy opportunities are staples such onions, carrots and potatoes.

The other solution is for government to step up and support the cost of the transition for hospitals. “This is not an investment that hospitals can afford to make on their own,” she says. “The best way government can come to the table to support a more sustainable food system is to fund this transition process.”

“When we talk about supporting local, that’s something so relevant that we can all be a part of,” agrees Watson.

And it’s not just the hospitals that benefit. “The volumes of hospital purchasing are exactly the kind of steady income that supports farmers,” says Maharaj. “I have seen firsthand the amazing ripple effect that happens to the whole community when an institution invests more thoughtfully in its foodservice program.”

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