May 8, 2016

Health facilities support local agriculture

Provided Photo

Kathy King, dining director at Wake Robin, leads the Vermont Work Group.

A group of Vermont hospitals and health care facilities have joined a national movement — and formed their own organization — with the mission of changing the way they source and purchase food.

Since 2010, the Vermont Work Group has been collectively harnessing its purchasing power to support local agriculture and advance the state’s sustainable food system.

Six years later, the group is seeing the results it sought: better buying practices, more direct involvement in the state’s agricultural economy and — perhaps most importantly — happier, healthier patients and residents.

Currently, the Vermont Work Group represents more than 2,000 beds at 12 Vermont hospitals and health care facilities, including the University of Vermont Medical Center, and operates under the helm of Kathy King, dining director at Wake Robin, a continuing care retirement community in Shelburne.

“Farm to Plate, Farm to School, and now Farm to Institution. They are all an important part of a bigger picture,” said King.

The Vermont Work Group is a collaborative effort, according to Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at UVM Medical Center. King sparked the formation of the group with a series of annual retreats she started at UVM six years ago in an effort to bring the philosophies of Healthy Food in Health Care to Vermont.

Healthy Food in Health Care, or HFHC, formed in 2005 to provide education, tools, resources and support to health care facilities in the U.S., to connect the health of their patients and staff to the food they serve. HFHC operates under the auspices of Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals, health care systems and medical professionals that promotes the health of people and the environment.

“The Vermont Work Group is externally focused, but the work on sustainable and healthy food is very much woven throughout nutrition services at UVM Medical Center,” said Imrie. “We get great reviews from patients who enjoy the quality of food, and sales are very high in all of the retail areas. Customers appreciate the focus on high-quality, sustainable and local food at a reasonable price.”

Today, and through the efforts of the Vermont Work Group, 35 percent of UVM Medical Center’s food purchases are local, and other Vermont Work Group organizations are seeing similar results. Almost 90 percent of UVM Medical Center’s pork is local, 78 percent of its beef is local and 53 percent of its dairy products are local. Also, anywhere from 78 to 90 percent of UVM Medical Center’s dairy, poultry, beef and pork products were raised without nontherapeutic antibiotics.

Six years later, the group is seeing the results it sought: better buying practices, more direct involvement in the state’s agricultural economy and — perhaps most importantly — happier, healthier patients and residents.

UVM Medical is sourcing its products from a “very long list” of more than 70 Vermont farms.

“We want to support local farms because they are an important part of our community, they provide high quality food products, and we can help support farm success and infrastructure so that those farms are there to sell to others,” Imrie said.

The Vermont Work Group has had a positive impact on collective buying power, too, according to those involved. When the group first met with distributors, King, Imrie and others learned that the distributors did not have the capacity to fully supply hospitals and health care facilities with certain local products, according to King.

One example was chicken. Vermont has an active sector of organic chicken farmers, but they were still unable to supply the amount of chicken needed for the Vermont Work Group’s members, who all rely on chicken as a primary source of protein. Instead, the group’s members all use a hormone-free brand of Purdue chicken.

“There’s still a long way to go with the distributors, but they know we exist,” said King, who also noted that conversations with large distributors have changed since the Vermont Work Group made it a goal to source from local farms, as much as possible.

“The sales reps are paying much more attention, more than they ever have before,” said King. “They know that we (the Vermont Work Group) are all talking to each other.”

Wake Robin sources its produce from Jericho Settlers Farm and its beef from Farmer Brown, in Enosburgh.

“My crew gets excited when they bring the live pigs in,” King said.

Brattleboro Memorial Hospital has strong ties with Windham Farm and Food, which partners with lots of local farms and producers, as well as Piccadilly Organics, of Winchester, N.H., and Vermont Creamery Yogurt and True North Granola, located in Brattleboro. Brattleboro Memorial also works with the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, and the hospital sources 20 to 28 percent of its food in Vermont and New Hampshire.

“There are more purchasing hubs and distribution partnerships blossoming every year,” said Jamie Baribeau, director of food and nutrition at BMH, which joined the Vermont Work Group in conjunction with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2013. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Jacqueline Hesse has only been executive chef at Rutland Regional Medical Center since last December, but she liked what she heard at her first Vermont Work Group meeting in January. Fifteen to 20 percent of products used at Rutland Regional are from Vermont.

Farther north, Black River Produce is the chief produce vendor for Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, or CVMC, which joined the Vermont Work Group in 2013. The medical center also acquires turkey from Misty Knoll Farm, chicken from Spring Hill Farm and cheese from the Cabot Co-op.

“It’s exciting for us to be a part of this group, which is really at the forefront of providing healthy, locally sourced food to patients,” said Terry Redmond, director of support services at CVMC. “We absolutely support this effort and have implemented their mission into our food service program.” Redmond said Central Vermont Medical Center’s “proudest association” is with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and its farm in Richmond. The hospital runs a small farmers’ market in its café using the VYCC’s farm products. In turn, the VYCC’s money goes toward food-insecure families in the area.

“This is not a result of the Vermont Work Group, but we can credit their philosophy,” Redmond said. “We have several more vendors that we buy Vermont products from, such as apple sauce, maple syrup, snacks, beverages, yogurt and more.”

Any hospital or health care facility in Vermont can join the Vermont Work Group, according to King. She and Imrie hope to be working with more soon.

“It’s really important for Vermont to continue this,” King said, “for the health of the people, agriculture and economy of this state.”

Along with CVMC and Brattleboro Memorial, the following organizations are also part of the Vermont Work Group: Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, UVM Medical Center, Porter Medical Center, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Grace Cottage Hospital, VA Medical & Regional Center, Wake Robin Lifecare Community, Southwestern Vermont Health Care and Champlain Valley Physicians’ Hospital.

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