**This column originally appeared in the March 4, 2016, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Local agriculture is increasingly appreciated not just for tasty food but also for community health — and what’s good for our health can also be good for business.
That much is clear from reports at our region’s Farm Route to Prosperity Summit on Feb. 26, a January conference on Farms, Food & Health, and other exciting new developments.
Here are just a handful of examples of the connections between local food and wellness, and what it could mean for agricultural business:
At the summit, I reported that the Farms, Food & Health conference on Jan. 29 at the Grand Traverse Resort had sold out — a month and a half in advance. Conference keynote speaker Daphne Miller, a physician and acclaimed author of the books Jungle Effect and Farmacology, commented on the diversity of people she saw among the participants: physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, registered dietitians, hospital and school food service directors, hospital administrators, school teachers, poverty reduction advocates and farmers.
“You guys are blowing me away,” she said. “This is the most diverse audience, professionally, that I have ever spoken to. I have given this talk globally around the world.”
Farmer Mary Brower, of East Jordan, spoke at both the conference and the summit. With financial support from donors and fundraisers, she is now able to team up with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan so that 10 percent of her farm’s business goes to families that can’t afford to buy much healthy food.
Munson Medical Center, one of the co-hosts of the Farms, Food & Health conference, recently secured a $50,000 grant from the state to develop a fruit-and-vegetable prescription program involving doctors at Munson’s Family Practice Clinic, the hospital’s community health and dietary staff and the farmers market at Grand Traverse Commons.
Our region’s hospitals are not alone. This is part of a state and national trend.
Michael Miller, chief mission officer of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, spoke at Farms, Food & Health about the expanded vision hospitals can take when thinking through their role in supporting community health. Saint Joseph, for example, provided financial assistance to a local farmers market. Grant Fletcher, food service director for Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, shared how his hospital recently switched from bulk liquid eggs to using all local eggs, made possible by buying a $4,000 piece of equipment used by bakers to quickly crack and blend eggs. Ultimately, it saved the hospital $40,000 after national egg prices shot up because of Avian flu.
A farmer-buyer meet-and-greet organized in conjunction with the health conference and the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference drew hospital and school buyers, as well as employers interested in arranging prepaid, weekly work site deliveries of produce from farms for employee wellness benefits. According to the Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology, which organized the Small Farm Conference, 80 percent of those who responded to a follow-up survey said they made valuable connections.
As Daphne Miller said: “These conversations will reverse the epidemic of chronic disease.”
And build business.