Over the past several years, the topic of healthcare has dominated our national landscape. The lack of options for fresh produce play a major role in our country’s healthcare dilemmas. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2017 that the Western diet increases rates of cancer and is responsible for 45% of deaths related to diabetes, heart disease and stroke in the United States.
If Americans consumed more fresh produce and less processed foods, those statistics would improve dramatically. Even better? Add local, sustainably-grown foods into our diets. It seems like a logical solution that would be widely embraced, yet there are many obstacles. Hospitals often struggle to provide fresh, local produce for their staff and patients. And, according to a 2017 article posted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only one-fifth of American medical schools require students to take a nutrition course. This leaves most doctors ill-equipped to help patients change their diets.
All of this presents a problem, not only for healthcare, but for local farmers who need markets to distribute their healthy produce.
As a local food leader in a city surrounded by excellent healthcare providers, Food Well Alliance went straight to the source to determine how local food could improve healthcare outcomes in Metro Atlanta. We partnered with The Common Market Georgia to host the Local Food & Healthcare Working Table held on March 22 and 29, 2018.
Leaders from 16 local food and healthcare organizations gathered to discuss the potential for increasing sustainable food procurement from local farmers and getting it into more Metro Atlanta healthcare institutions.
But how do we address the challenges and scale the opportunities that come with such a lofty goal?
Doctors, hospital chefs, nonprofit executives, public officials, and urban farmers showed up to help answer that question by:
- Learning about each other’s roles and innovative practices that are already increasing access to sustainably-grown, local food.
- Better understanding specific challenges that each participating organization will face as these organizations attempt to make more local and organic food available in Metro Atlanta’s healthcare institutions.
- Identifying ways to scale opportunities for local food procurement and greater community engagement.
Food Well Alliance Executive Director Kim Karris set the stage for the conversation. "Atlanta hospitals can play a lead role in creating a culture of health in the communities where they are located, starting with local food procurement and expanding into meaningful collaborative programs with community farms, gardens and markets. We know that small-scale urban farms may not have the size and scale to supply an entire hospital, but they are critical after a patient's hospital stay by activating consciousness and restoring healthy food choices in the neighborhoods where patients live."
Lily Rolader, Director of The Common Market Georgia, encouraged participants to speak up and listen well. “It’s extremely important to the movement for people to understand our different perspectives and challenges. This is a way to have an open conversation and troubleshoot issues that someone may have already been through before.”
We kicked things off by asking representatives to share ways their organizations are advancing access to local and organic food. We heard a lot of great stories as people spoke about their programs and initiatives. It was clear that we’re already making a difference.
Catch a glimpse into a few examples of innovative practices underway in Metro Atlanta:
Gilliam’s Urban Farm spans four acres of land in Oakland City, a “food desert” neighborhood with no grocery stores nearby. Lovey and Farmer P Gilliam have helped fill that gap with a bountiful harvest from their farm. They offer double SNAP benefits through their partnership with Wholesome Wave Georgia and teach seniors how to prepare healthy foods through their partnership with Georgia Farmers Market Association.
Wholesome Wave Georgia’s Georgia Fresh for Less Program allows people with SNAP benefits to double the amount of produce they purchase at local farmers markets. They also offer a fruit and vegetable prescription (FVRx) program and partner with Grady Health System and Good Samaritan Health Center to provide food prescriptions to patients.
Emory Healthcare is not only getting fresh, local food items on patient trays, they’re creating demand for more of it. Nurses are being trained to be advocates for patient choices, cooks are taught how to prepare healthy items so they’re appealing to patients, and order-takers are equipped with information to answer patients’ questions. Emory is also developing a curriculum with dietitians to include sustainable local food.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Georgia Organics are partnering to install school gardens where children can gain hands-on learning about agriculture, and Ladybug for Girls Foundation is bringing yoga and gardens to schools.
With innovations like these in place, Atlanta is primed to make big strides.
But there are challenges to overcome. Cost and lack of nutrition education were two of the challenges most often mentioned. Others included capacity, infrastructure, return on investment, pricing, data and land. When we met for our second session on March 29, we were ready to explore the potential for solutions to these challenges, scaling opportunities and brand new ideas. The larger group was divided into four smaller groups, with representatives from various organizations strategically placed together. This turned out to be an effective way to step out of our silos, better understand each other’s worlds and increase our awareness about additional groups who could be natural partners.
Participants left the discussions feeling energized and hopeful. “I really think this was the first step in laying the groundwork for a much bigger conversation,” said Rolader. “We definitely saw some light bulbs going off as people were getting excited hearing about the possibilities.”
The Local Food & Healthcare Working Table is priming the pump for Atlanta to step up its game in the “food is medicine” arena. After the meetings, we interviewed some of our participants. In future blogs, you’ll hear from a doctor, an urban farmer, a hospital chef and a food provider. They’ll share on a deeper level the challenges and opportunities from their perspectives, as well as what motivates and excites them about contributing to the collaborative efforts ahead.
Food Well Alliance and The Common Market Georgia are grateful to each of the representatives from our attending organizations for their engagement in this dynamic discussion:
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
City of Atlanta, Mayor’s Office of Resiliency
Gilliam’s Urban Farm
Georgia Farmers Market Association
Good Samaritan Health Center
Grady Health System
Ladybug for Girls Foundation/Northside
The Conversation Fund
WellStar Health System
Wholesome Wave Georgia