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Connecting Farms to Hospitals in the Northeast

A new study by Cornell identifies the primary characteristics needed for a successful farm-to-hospital program like the one at New Milford Hospital.

The picture at the top of the website for New Milford (Conn.) Hospital’s dining services shows a vast green field of crops and a beautiful blue sky. To the right of the image is the mantra: “The shorter the food chain, the better the food.”

The image and slogan are testaments to both New Milford’s culinary mission as well as a growing trend amongst Northeast hospitals to connect dining services with local farmers, reports a new study by Cornell University.

“Hospitals, more than ever, are concerned with population health, and it’s in this context that farm-to-hospital (FTH) programs have the greatest impact,” says Tim Bouchard, vice president, operations–healthcare, at Unidine, which holds the foodservice contract at New Milford. “A strong FTH program is a platform for better nutrition, for education and for reconnecting elements of the community through events like farmers’ markets, cooking demonstrations and cooking classes, health and wellness fairs, community dinners, promotion of Community Supported Agriculture, composting and recycling—all of which are part of the program at New Milford.”

Peppers and mushrooms. Photo courtesy of New Milford.

New Milford is one of many hospitals to connect the plow to the plate. According to Cornell’s study, which surveyed more than 100 hospitals in the Northeast, 58 percent of those surveyed have adopted a FTH program.

“We wanted to understand and identify the characteristics of hospitals that run successful FTH programs,” says Miguel Gómez, an associate professor of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, who conducted the study, along with Ph.D. student Bobby J. Smith II and Harry M. Kaiser, Gellert Family Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell.

Their findings were as follows:

•    Hospitals that signed Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge were more likely to have a FTH program.
•    Larger hospitals are more likely to run successful FTH programs.
•    Hospitals located in counties with strong direct-market channels are more likely to have successful FTH programs.
•    Being self-op or contract had no bearing on whether or not a hospital decided to adopt a FTH program, and there are successful programs in both types of operations.
•    Hospitals located in areas that don’t have strong farming infrastructures had more difficulty establishing successful FTH programs.
•    Many hospitals rely on an intermediary to source local products.

“What was most interesting to me was how the supply chain was structured,” Gómez notes. “Many successful programs rely heavily on an intermediary, like a CSA or a local distributor, to connect them to a network of farmers.”

Politics and budgeting also play a big role in a hospital’s ability to launch a successful program.

“It requires change,” Smith says. “And sometimes that can be a challenge. Buying local is expensive and labor-intensive. We found, on average, that 40 percent of a hospital’s foodservice budget goes to the procurement of local foods, so there are certain limitations and opportunities there. A hospital also needs to have the capabilities and space to handle the product.”


Top Challenges, More Findings

(Continued from page 1)

The study found that the primary reasons for a hospital to implement a FTH program were:

•    To support the local environment;
•    To improve the quality of food for patients and guests; and
•    To promote environmental sustainability.

In addition to the in-depth case study on New Milford, the study also explored procurement strategies at Cayuga Medical Center (Ithaca, N.Y.) and The University of Vermont Medical Center (Burlington, Vt.).

At Cayuga, (a 204-bed, self-op facility) the FTH program was developed by nutrition and food services, and relies on intermediaries like distributors and local CSAs.

At Vermont Medical Center (a 550-bed, self-op facility), both direct-to-farmer relationships like those developed at New Milford as well as intermediaries like those at Cayuga are used to procure product. “Bread, milk and ice cream are sourced though direct relationships with farmers,” Smith notes.

“What makes the program at New Milford unique is the collaboration between the hospital, the community and Unidine,” Bouchard says. “From the beginning, the leadership at New Milford was committed to its FTH program and made sure that all the resources were available to ensure its success.”

The program has also helped the hospital to obtain grants to further improve its foodservice program.  

“The quality and variety of fresh ingredients is reflected in our menus for the patients and for the hospital café,” Bouchard adds. “We’ve been told patients return to New Milford Hospital because the food is so good. In fact, every day our café is filled with customers from local businesses who consider it one of the best restaurants in town.”

While Cornell’s study identified significant growth with FTH programs in the Northeast, there is still much work to be done to improve the viability and infrastructure of these programs.

“The top challenges were identified as supply reliability, cost, lack of access to local food systems and seasonality of foods,” Gómez says.

“Ultimately, it’s about reconnecting people to the source of their food,” Bouchard adds. “In an environment where hospitals are asserting their responsibility to contribute to population health, FTH programs represent an excellent strategy that can touch so many.”

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