*This column originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2015, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Maureen Husek is food and nutrition services director for the 1,070-bed Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, near Detroit. Several years ago she came up with a way to celebrate the state’s apple harvest — she would put a delicious Michigan apple on the tray of every patient.
Husek, though, was shocked to learn from her major food distributor that it couldn’t be done. “We carry Washington apples,” her sales representative told her.
“We live in Michigan,” Husek said. “Why can’t I get Michigan apples?”
Fortunately the situation is changing. New businesses are working to meet the growing demand from buyers for locally grown food, and more food service directors like Husek are flexing their buying power and insisting that distributors figure out how to offer the option to buy local.
Husek, along with speakers from Traverse City, described recent changes at the eighth annual Michigan Green Healthcare Conference last week. The Michigan Health & Hospital Association hosted the conference this year in Traverse City. The event included a tour and panel discussion co-hosted with the Michigan Farm to Institution Network at Cherry Capital Foods, a local foods distribution company.
Beaumont, like Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and many other hospitals, schools, and other institutions statewide, has a goal of sourcing at least 20 percent of its food from Michigan by 2020. But that’s hard to do if distributors don’t carry Michigan products or if buyers can’t tell whether or not the products are local.
The big news at the conference, however, is that one of Michigan’s major distributors—following Husek’s persistent discussions with her sales reps and with support of other food service directors — has come up with four pages worth of Michigan-grown products it can source. Husek said all of the distributor’s buyers will soon have access to the list once it develops a roll-out.
Cherry Capital Foods, Husek said, already provides availability and transparency. She worked with Cherry Capital to source Michigan-grown green beans and carrots that could be cut and frozen for use year-round.
Husek and Tom Freitas, the food service director for Traverse City Area Public Schools, said they each have purchased directly from individual farms, too. But sometimes farms can’t meet their needs in the same way that a food distributor can. When Husek tells farmers what she needs for 5.3 million meals a year, she said “their eyes glaze over” because the volume is so large.
Freitas said Cherry Capital provides thorough reports showing the farms from which he’s buying.
“You’ll never see a Cherry Capital Foods strawberry,” Evan Smith, senior operations manager, told conference participants. Instead, strawberries delivered by the company carry the name and locale of the farm that grew it.
So come June, Husek also can put a Michigan strawberry on every patient’s plate.
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at Groundwork. You can reach her at email@example.com.