Think Local

Imagine going to the hospital for a minor surgery and being offered a chicken breast entrée for dinner featuring “locally-raised poultry”. Or imagine visiting a relative at a long-term care home for lunch and sharing a meal with them that includes fresh, local produce. With a lot of hard work and determination, these scenarios may become more commonplace in the near future. In 2010, a research project funded by the University of Guelph entitled Exploring the Feasibility and Benefits of Incorporating Local Foods into Ontario’s Health Care System, was put together to study the current and future use of local food in Ontario healthcare. The study found that although healthcare operators are interested in increasing local food, they face substantial barriers, as do local food producers and distributors. For example, the majority of healthcare foodservice facilities use outsourced, prepared food products and are not equipped to cook with fresh, local food ingredients. In addition, healthcare food purchasing decisions are based on budgets, patient needs, food costs, and food safety requirements. Group purchasing organizations are most often used to keep food costs within budget, and operations are kept as efficient as possible based on limited labour and financial resources. These are just some of the factors that make local food procurement more difficult to achieve.

Last May 2014, I was fortunate enough to volunteer at the Bringing Local Food to Niagara conference hosted by the Niagara Health System at the St. Catherines site. Almost 70 people from across the healthcare food value chain in Niagara and across Ontario attended the conference for the opportunity to discuss ideas for increasing local food on healthcare menus. The attendees ranged from hospital and long-term care foodservice managers to food manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors. Everyone who attended demonstrated their commitment for working collaboratively together to generate ideas, discuss barriers, and come up with concrete solutions.

During the conference, attendees split up into different breakout sessions where they discussed topics such as how “local food” should be defined – whether nationally, provincially, or regionally. Issues such as food costs, funding, budgeting and guidelines in long-term care homes as compared to hospitals and retirement homes were also discussed. The different logistic issues across the food value chain were also looked at in relation to increasing local food offerings. The particular breakout session I was involved in came up with several conclusions. The current models being used must be adapted to focus on local food, and the specifications for local food must be clearly defined. Most importantly, the key to successfully increasing local food items on healthcare menus is for each member of the food value chain to commit to the local food initiative, build strong relationships, and work together to achieve results.

I believe partnerships such as the ones forged at this conference are crucial to the success of the local food initiative in healthcare foodservice. Leaders are needed across all levels of the supply chain, to propose ideas and take the first steps towards increasing local food offerings. Healthcare operators must commit to local food procurement, manufacturers and distributors must work with suppliers and commit to providing local food, and above all, the consumer – the patient – must demand local food.

Photo Credit: gmtbillings via Compfight cc