Healthy Food in Hospitals and Health Care - Fletcher Allen, VT

This past June, while attending a food-related conference in Burlington, Vermont, I inevitably found myself looking for somewhere decent to eat near campus. After asking around a bit, I was surprised to hear how many people recommended the hospital. Hospital food generally evokes the same reaction as airplane food. It’s something you eat because you’re hungry and there are no other options; it’s definitely not something you seek out in a city that has the variety of good restaurants that Burlington does.

Fletcher Allen Hospital, however, provides something rather different than your standard-issue hospital gruel. Roughly half of the food served at Fletcher Allen is locally-sourced and sustainable. It’s made to order, minimally processed, and they have removed fried foods from their menu. The hospital sources much of their produce from about seventy local farmers, while 90 per cent of their beef is raised on two local farms, which the staff have visited, so they know the farmers and trust their farming practices. Fletcher Allen also maintains a rooftop garden that acts as an educational site for staff, patients and the community.

Of course it wasn’t an easy journey to where they are today. When Chef Richard Jarmusz was hired over ten years ago, he was met with initial resistance from both the kitchen staff and the administration. Jarmusz refused to give up. He pushed for a healthier, more local and sustainable menu that required more cooking from scratch (the hospital now employs a number of professional chefs) and redesigned the kitchen and cafeteria. Having been pointed towards Fletcher Allen when in search of a good meal, I’d say the results speak for themselves.

Ryerson University in Toronto is currently undertaking its own food transformation on campus. Headed by Joshna Maharaj, Assistant Director of Food Services and Executive Chef since 2013, Ryerson is working to integrate more locally sourced, organic food into their menus. Maharaj is pushing for more food cooked from scratch as well as more food programming such as community meals and workshops for students. She has the added challenge of trying to provide this food at a price that is affordable to students who are already on a tight budget. So far she’s made excellent progress, overhauling the menu with her kitchen staff, negotiating a contract with Chartwells, a campus food service provider, that outlines an increasing amount of sustainably-sourced food and providing students with a daily $5 meal option.

I had the pleasure of hearing Maharaj speak at Ryerson about her experience with changing food at the institutional level, and her energy is palpable. Given that she’s run up against the same kind of resistance experienced by Jarmusz at Fletcher Allen Hospital, her energy and enthusiasm have been indispensable assets. She has past experience creating a network of local food vendors for hospital purchasing, so she’s no stranger to working with large food service contractors and is willing to fight for good food.

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation based in Montreal recognizes the power of institutional food change on a large scale and provides grants (most recently between $40,000 and $75,000), to institutions committed to providing healthy, local and sustainable food in hospitals, long-term care facilities, schools and universities. The grants are given to institutions across Canada. Recent recipients have included Concordia University, to hire a Sustainable Food System Manager; Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia, to pilot the sourcing of local sustainable food at three long-term care facilities and a hospital; and Edmonton Northlands, to create a working group of large institutions that can leverage their buying power to increase local food purchases. Similar work is being done by Farm Folk/City Folk in British Columbia and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The tenacity required for food change at the institutional level is perhaps why such change has been so slow. Many people would rather not fight the daily battles and the behemoth that is the industrial food system in which many institutional food contractors are so embedded. However, the more institutions that begin demanding sustainably sourced food, the more easily these large food contractors will be able to provide it, until it eventually becomes the norm. This kind of work builds on itself by setting precedents and providing models for other institutions to follow. It also draws attention to the importance of food to the wider public that these institutions serve.