Such a partnership is just one possibility raised by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's Farm to Hospital program. The pilot project seeks to play matchmaker, linking local farmers looking to build their customer base with hospitals emphasizing health initiatives. "We're working with [hospital staff] to integrate local foods into their programs," explains Nicholie, the program coordinator.
The Asheville-based regional nonprofit already has a similar project -- Growing Minds Farm to School -- well under way. Part of a national effort, it gets locally grown food into school cafeterias while helping educate students about healthy eating and sustainable agriculture. A few years ago, Yancey County farmers Harold and Sandra Davis leveraged federal grants to expand their hydroponic system so they could sell lettuce to local schools year-round, she reports.
Hospitals, says Nicholie, were the logical next step. "We asked, 'How can we use hospitals as role models for health and healthy eating and making good choices?'" Part of the answer was working with existing programs in Western North Carolina. In Mission Health System's Lighten Up 4 Life program in Asheville, for example, participants deal with such challenges as diabetes, heart disease and weight-management issues. ASAP's new program helps by providing local-food guides and getting chefs to hold cooking classes featuring local healthy foods, she notes.
Both ASAP projects also encourage a facility's food-service staff to buy, serve and spotlight locally produced, organic food. Madison Farms -- an LLC involving seven local farms -- already sells produce to the Asheville and Madison County schools; now it's added Mission Hospital to its roster of clients, says Nicholie. ASAP helps participating farms market their products, the project supports the local economy, and schools and hospitals can better serve public-health needs, Nicholie reports.
"People look to hospitals for guidance in regards to health," says Emily Jackson of ASAP. With the region's "outstanding agricultural resources," she continues, "it makes sense that hospitals would capitalize on them and encourage people to eat the freshest local food."
The project marries the nonprofit's overall mission -- supporting sustainable agriculture -- with the health industry's growing focus on education and prevention, Nicholie adds. Farm to Hospital, for example, helps institutions achieve some of the goals set by NC Prevention Partners, a statewide nonprofit promoting nutrition, physical activity and tobacco-use cessation, she notes.
But Farm to Hospital is also about getting locally produced food from the farm to the people. For a flat fee, farmers doing community-supported agriculture supply customers with produce each week, dropping off their goods at specified times and locations (see "Taking Your Pick of Local Produce: A Guide to Area CSAs," March 18 Xpress). Farm to Hospital can help by making the local hospital a drop-off point for CSAs, helping both staff and the community at large, says Nicholie. Another possibility would be a regular farmers' market hosted by the participating hospital.
While Farm to Hospital is furthest along at Mission, the response from other local hospitals has also been good, says Nicholie, mentioning Pardee and Park Ridge in Henderson County, Spruce Pine Community Hospital in Watauga County and others. Rural hospitals, in particular, sometimes serve as their community's main (or only) health-and-wellness center, she points out. Farm to Hospital can be a key contributor to the overall mission while supporting local farmers.
Farm to Hospital, stresses Nicholie, is not a one-size-fits-all project. Not all local farmers have the resources to meet a hospital's needs, both in terms of the volume of food and the level of liability insurance required. And ASAP lacks the resources to launch pilot projects at every WNC hospital. "But we're hoping to get the conversation started," says Nicholie.
Interested hospitals should contact Molly Nicholie (236-1282, ext. 102, or firstname.lastname@example.org). The Farm to Hospital project is funded, in part, by the Golden LEAF Foundation, created in 1999 by the state Legislature to administer half of North Carolina's share of the tobacco settlement. LEAF awards grants for agriculture, job creation/retention, educational and work-force-preparedness projects, especially those targeting tobacco-industry-dependent, economically distressed and rural communities.
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