When a good idea comes along, it takes root and begins to grow faster and more vigorously than even its biggest advocates ever imagined. Certainly that was true of our small market. We were open for business only a few weeks when I started getting calls from people at other Kaiser Permanente facilities who wanted to start their own farmers’ markets. Within a year, five farmers’ markets were up and running. Today, our health-care system boasts some 30 markets in four states. And of course, many other hospitals and medical centers have launched their own.
Meanwhile, the success of our farmers’ market inspired us to look for other ways to encourage the people we serve to eat healthier foods. One obvious place for a hospital to start is with its patients. The same values that inform our outdoor market, after all, should guide the choice of food we serve to our patients. That means using as much food as we can manage from small local farms growing in sustainable ways. Over the past few years we’ve been working hard to introduce more locally grown fresh produce onto the menu and to plan around foods that are in season. It’s a big undertaking. In 2006 Kaiser Permanente bought about 25 tons of produce from small family farmers to serve at our hospitals. In 2007, we were up to 60 tons.
Building on the enthusiastic reception our market received, we’re also experimenting with other ways to get produce to the people. We’ve started “best of the market” programs, where we put together bags of produce from the market and bring them to people who may be too busy caring for patients to be able to shop themselves. We’re investigating ways to grow vegetables on unused land at a few of our medical-facilities.
Around the country, farmers’ markets are booming. According to the latest tally, there are more than 4,600 farmers’ markets in the United States. Almost anywhere you go during the growing season, you’ll find one. Each and every one, in its own way, reflects the special character of the places they call home—from the sizzling chiles in Arizona to the tropical fruits on Maui to the wild mushrooms displayed at the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon.
More and more markets are working to make sure that people at every economic level can take advantage of fresh, locally grown produce. Several states are experimenting with wireless devices that allow people on food stamps to use their swipe cards at local markets. Many neighborhood food banks are forming partnerships with local farmers, arranging to buy up food that might otherwise go to waste in the field and serving it to those in need—a win-win arrangement for everyone. A wonderful group called Urban Farming has been converting abandoned lots in Detroit into small garden plots tended by volunteers, who turn their produce over to local food banks and other meal-assistance programs—an idea that has taken root in dozens of other cities around the country.
Chances are there’s a terrific farmers’ market near you. Or a community-supported agriculture program that allows customers to buy a certain amount of produce from a local farmer each week—providing farmers more stable revenue and consumers the best of the harvest. I urge you to support them. As a physician, I know there’s nothing more important to health than what you eat. As an avid home cook, I know there’s no better place to find the healthiest, freshest and best-tasting food than at a farmers’ market.
Enjoy it in good health.
Dr. Preston Maring, the associate physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland (CA) Medical Center, is a crusader for local, healthy food and a national advocate for the small family farm. Peter Jaret won a James Beard Foundation journalism award for his article “The Search for the Anti-Aging Diet” (EatingWell Magazine, November/December 2007). His most recent book is Nurse: A World of Care (Emory University Press, 2008).