Perhaps one of the richest ironies around is that our hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities are often associated with things that aren’t so healthy. Take, for example, medical waste. Several years ago a group called Health Care Without Harm approached health care facilities about the mercury and other toxins they were producing. At first, the message wasn’t received so well. Treating sick people is stressful enough without worrying whether the mercury from that broken thermometer is a pollutant. But eventually Health Care Without Harm was able to get health care professionals to realize that some of the illnesses they were treating were connected to the waste they were putting out into the environment. Now Health Care Without Harm has set its sights on food. Yet again, a great irony is that the food served in health care facility cafeterias is often not the healthiest. And yet again, health care professionals are starting to see that something which at first blush seems to have little to do with their primary mission—making people well—actually has a lot to do with it.
One direct connection is the antibiotic resistance issue. Resistant bacteria are running rampant in many hospitals and nursing homes, and the overuse of drugs as feed additives in large-scale livestock operations is partly to blame, say health care experts.
Granted, the connections are not always so obvious. Nurses, for example, are suffering injuries because of the difficulty of moving increasingly obese patients. But let’s face it, in the case of hospital patients they generally can’t blame cafeteria food for their pre-existing conditions—they brought their nutritional problems with them.
In fact, most hospital cafeteria food is served to people who work at those hospitals. So many nurses, doctors, administrative staffers and other health care workers are trashing their bodies with poor nutrition. And the methods used to produce and process, as well as transport, that food are having negative impacts on the environment. An unhealthy environment equals unhealthy people. A lot of those unhealthy people eventually find their way to a hospital or nursing home. No, they can’t blame the hospital’s creamed peas for their pre-existing conditions, but the role hospital cafeteria’s play in supporting the bigger farming system is related.
This isn’t as much about whether a cancer patient is getting organic cottage cheese as whether our health care industry is supporting a food and farming system that is increasing the rate of cancer in general. This is also about pointing out the ludicrousness of a system where a southeast Minnesota farmer retires and moves into a nursing home, only to consume Colorado beef, Idaho potatoes and California milk the rest of his natural life. Meanwhile, he can gaze out through the cafeteria window at some of the richest farmland to be found anywhere as it grows corn and soybeans that’s shipped all over the world.
It’s Jamie Harvie’s job to educate health care providers about the connections between healthy, local foods, a healthy environment and healthy people. As coordinator of the Health Care Without Harm initiative, Harvie has been able to convince some facilities that sourcing local, sustainably-produced food is good medicine, so to speak. When these facilities do see the connections, it can have some major impacts, not only on the quality of the food served in cafeterias, but the local farming economy.
The Land Stewardship Project has joined the Health Care Without Harm initiative in an attempt to help farmers who want to market locally network with hospitals and nursing homes. LSP sees great potential for improving the human, environmental and economic health of communities by connecting local farmers with local hospital and nursing home cafeterias.
Harvie recently keynoted the second annual Local Foods Forum and Expo in Winona, Minn. In his talk, he described how health care providers are increasingly linking local foods, a healthy environment and healthy people. Better yet, they are acting on that knowledge and seeking out local, healthy food. Check out the Ear to the Ground podcast no. 31 for an excerpt of Harvie’s talk.