This project is leveraging the vast potential of health care facilities to support a more vibrant and locally focused food system in our province, while ensuring those who need it the most are getting healthy meals.
Many of Food First NL’s projects overlap on a common goal: to make the healthy choice an easy choice for residents of Newfoundland & Labrador. Likewise, we also want to see the local choice become the easy choice.
A key step toward reaching these goals is to get more healthy, local food into our public institutions, like schools and hospitals, because these places feed large numbers of people daily. This is a step that aligns with the work of many community organizations across the province, who are also striving to improve access to healthy choices.
Food First NL has helped get locally farmed foods into a school cafeteria through our partnership with Farm to Cafeteria Canada and its Farm to School salad bar program. The program gets produce from a local farm onto the lunch trays of students at St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s. And in the coming weeks, we’ll be announcing an expansion of this program to other schools across NL. We’re thrilled to share that we’ve begun laying the groundwork to launch a similar initiative in the health care system.
The Need for Farm to Health Care
This is particularly vital work in a province like ours: we have the lowest rate of consumption of vegetables and fruit in Canada, and among the highest rates of many diet-linked health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. As a result, healthcare is one of our province’s top 3 yearly expenditures.
The McConnell Foundation’s Nourish Initiative, which is shaping the future of food in healthcare, reports that in Canada the 5 chronic diseases most linked to poor diets cost the Canadian health care system over 25 billion dollars a year (infographic).
With this in mind, it’s easy to make the argument that the food served in hospitals should provide a teaching moment, and encourage patients to embrace nutrition as part of the healing process and healthy living in general.
As it stands though, Nourish reports that patient tray waste can be as high as 50% – in part because patients choose to pass on the undesirable meals currently served in many Canadian hospitals. This equates to an estimated food wastage bill of $45 million dollars a year nationally.
We at Food First NL believe there is great potential for the Health Care facilities in our province to be champions for healthy, local, delicious food.
The Potential of Farm to Health Care to Revitalize Our Food Sector
Farm to Health Care in NL can also unlock the tremendous potential of the health sector’s purchasing power; to act as an economic driver for local agriculture, fisheries, and other food producers. Health care facilities purchase and serve an astounding amount of food daily and as such could easily contribute to the creation of a more vibrant, robust food system in NL.
Today, Newfoundland & Labrador has hundreds of farms, where it used to have thousands. As a result, our province only produces 10% of the produce we consume in our province. By relying on imports for the other 90%, we ultimately end up paying higher prices for vegetables and fruits that take a long time to travel here, which impacts their quality.
To quote Nourish Health again, “With 4 billion spent annually on food service, it’s time to harness the purchasing power and influence of the health care sector [and] reframe the perceived challenges of doing so as opportunities … for the benefit of patients, organizations, and communities.”
For example, the Central Regional Health Authority is 1 of 4 Regional Health Authorities in the province, and it alone serves approximately 95,000 people in 177 communities, through 45 different health care facilities. The large-scale institutional procurement contracts of our health authorities could infuse money into the local food sector, as opposed to supporting food suppliers elsewhere.
Ties to The Way Forward on Agriculture Sector Work Plan
In acknowledgement of work that needs to be done to grow our food system, the provincial government and industry have devised The Way Forward on Agriculture Sector Work Plan. The Plan has convened various government departments, the NL Federation of Agriculture, along with 10 other partners, including Food First NL, to spur growth in our province’s agricultural sector.
The Plan is committed to doubling food self-sufficiency by 2022, and to doubling direct employment within the industry. Piloting efforts to have health care institutions serve more local food would be a big step forward for our province to achieve both goals.
Given the sheer volume of food served daily by local health care facilities, the procurement of more local food for hospital menus would increase the capacity and financial vitality of local agriculture by giving farmers more venues to which they can sell their harvests. Increasing their revenues will increase their hiring capacity, and create more local jobs in the agriculture sector. The plan is aiming to “generate an additional 500 person years of employment.”
One of Food First NL’s primary involvements in the Way Forward on Agriculture’s Sector Work Plan is to develop a pilot initiative to serve locally farmed products in public health facilities. This project is the first action point listed in The Plan, and we’re developing it in collaboration with the NL Federation of Agriculture, Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, Department of Health & Community Services, and Department of Children, Seniors, and Social Development, with initial funding support from Growing Forward 2.
The Project Is Building on Successful Models in Canada
A review of successful models of Farm to Health Care initiatives in the country has equipped us to take on this pilot project with confidence that it can be done here, and with knowledge of key best practices to start such an initiative.
We didn’t have to look any further than our neighbor, Nova Scotia, for encouragement that we can establish a Farm to Health Care project here. The Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia worked with hospitals and long-term care facilities so they could serve locally and sustainably caught seafood. They consulted with food services staff about menu needs, then connected them with small scale fishers. Four health care institutions in Nova Scotia now purchase a significant portion of their seafood from local processors.
After completing a review of best practices across North America, we’re now preparing to engage key partners and stakeholders to inform the development of a pilot Farm to Health Care program in NL.
Over the coming months, we’ll be having conversations with farmers, food service providers, and food distributors to better understand what innovative opportunities exist to get more local food into health care facilities in NL. This stakeholder engagement process will ultimately streamline the development and implementation of the pilot, while enhancing the likelihood of key stakeholder buy-in.
We are currently in the first phase of the project: assessing feasibility, identifying a region and facility to partner with, and designing the pilot initiative. The pilot will take place in one facility within either the Central Regional Health Authority or the Western Regional Health Authority.
To keep up to date about the pilot project, sign up to Food First NL's monthly newsletter. Questions can be directed to Sarah Ferber at firstname.lastname@example.org.