The Farmer and the HMO Should be Friends

Health Care Without Harm, an Overbrook grantee, has long advocated for hospitals to curb their waste and use of toxic chemicals. Their work is paying off: just yesterday the San Jose Mercury News reported a welcomed shift in the mainstream health care industry's environmental focus. Kaiser Permanente, an HMO responding to Health Care Without Harm's campaign, is starting a new program to incorporate local and organic foods in their cafeterias. Vegetable gardens are springing up behind ERs.

"The food system promotes high pesticides and overuse of antibiotics, which all health care organizations are saying we have to stop because it's promoting antibiotic resistance," said Jamie Harvie, food coordinator for Health Care Without Harm. Harvie was quoted by the San Jose Mercury News, reflecting the urgency of the health care system's shift to local and organic foods. Many of today's most costly health problems are food-related, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Kaiser now has 30 farmers' markets at its hospitals in northern California, and its medical centers in the region get weekly deliveries of organic produce. In the last year alone, participating hospitals and medical centers bought 74 tons of produce from local farmers, cutting down on the thousands of food miles logged by produce previously shipped in from out of state. A new campaign challenges participants to reduce meat purchases by 20 percent, and then use the extra savings to buy local, hormone-free meats.

Although converting to the new food system seems like a no-brainer, hospitals can't make the switch overnight. Many have long-standing contracts with large vendors. But the wheels have been set in motion, and The San Mateo County Food System Alliance recently held a "speed dating" event in which farmers had five minutes to talk with hospital staff about which foods they could grow and sell. Growing a large diversity of crops for local medical centers in their own communities would not only reduce farmers' carbon-heavy shipments, it would also allow them to wean off monocultures that require more chemical inputs.

Hospital partnerships with local farmers seem like a win-win-win; a symbiotic relationship that keeps local farmers afloat, ultimately saves hospitals money, and treats patients preventatively with chemical-free foods. Here's hoping the rest of the country can follow California's example!