Straight to the Source

Sourcing sustainable food starts with communication and can result in innovative solutions.

By thresa pattee on January 19, 2017


The journey toward healthier patients, communities and environments can take many paths. The creation of a sustainable food system does not come about from a single course, but instead from many innovations cutting through the landscape. Like a delta feeding a fertile valley, each new innovation acts as tributary, adding more life and increasing the richness of the soil. From direct vendor relationships to multilevel supply chain engagement, many solutions exist, addressing not only internal sourcing goals, but also acting as market transformers.

No. 1—Farm to Cafeteria: Direct Purchasing from Producers

For the past few years, Grant Fletcher, system director for healthy living and sustainability at Bronson Health System in Michigan, has been focused on changing the way Bronson sources food for its patients and employees. He and his colleagues are working to support local economic development, add diversity to the regional foodshed and provide patrons with healthy, delicious food.

For example, Bronson’s values and goals positioned it to transition from processed egg products to locally produced whole eggs without preservatives or fillers. Norm Carlson, of Naturally Norm’s Farms, and Joe Koopsen, of Joe’s Farm, both local farmers raising pastured chickens without routine antibiotics, were already selling eggs to a number of local businesses.

The pairing with Bronson was a natural extension of Carlson’s business, helping to further anchor him as a regional producer. Naturally Norm’s is now the primary egg supplier for Bronson Methodist Hospital. For Koopsen, a partnership with Bronson represented an opportunity to grow his operations. Building on a relationship with Bronson that first started at the Bronson Winter Market, Koopsen has now become the primary egg supplier for Bronson Battle Creek.

Fletcher credits their success to the support of leadership and the flexibility and autonomy given to the food service teams at both facilities. “Any organization can do this if the administration, the executives and the thought leaders are at the table,” said Fletcher. He is targeting a goal of 50 to 60 percent of locally sourced food in the near future, with his efforts now turning to sourcing local, sustainably raised protein such as whole chickens and whole turkeys.

The steady stream of business that the hospitals provide to Koopsen, Carlson and future local partners is how Bronson is helping to transform the food system, supporting the growth and resiliency of sustainable local suppliers.

No. 2—Aggregation and Activation: Hospitals Working Together to Improve Sourcing Options

One hospital or system working to source sustainable products is powerful, but when hospitals and systems team up with others in the region, that voice is magnified and the potential for what they can accomplish grows.

When Washington Hospital in Fremont, California, started sourcing sustainably raised meat, it started hyperlocal—it bought livestock at the Alameda County Fair from students in the local 4-H Club. Not only did the hospital get a quality product, but Washington felt its purchase contributed to the community.

Washington was able to supply its café and catering services through this partnership, but if it wanted to scale up sustainable meat use for patient meals, it needed larger-scale purchasing strategies.

Seeking support, Washington Hospital leveraged its involvement with the Healthy Food in Health Care Bay Area Hospital Leadership Team, a collection of 45 regional health care facilities working together to expand sustainable sourcing options. The group pools its volume to engage in collective buying, helping all members to source and negotiate a viable price for sustainable products that meet their shared criteria.

“We need more big-solution thinking … instead of [hearing] ‘We don’t do it that way,’ ” said Kimberlee Alvari, director of food and nutrition Services at Washington Hospital. “Parts of the supply chain are not having the right conversation … some are saying they can [supply] that for you, but somewhere in the chain there’s a bottleneck. Let’s open up these bottlenecks and get these volumes through.”

Working together, the leadership team identified a vendor that produced meat raised without routine antibiotics and had the necessary supply. The team then gained commitments from each individual hospital and communicated the aggregate volume, so that vendors could ensure adequate product availability upfront. The aggregate volume also generated vendor rebates given to each participating hospital. Alvari recalls it was a little challenging getting everyone on the same page, but having the power of multiple voices at the bargaining table was a major advantage—and far more effective than going it alone.

Alvari is especially excited about the potential of cross-sector collaboration through Washington’s work with the California EdMed Collaborative, a triumvirate of aggregated procurement comprised of hospitals, K–12 public schools and universities working to increase sustainable, institutional procurement, build a healthier food system and support local, sustainable production in the changing landscape of Californian agriculture.

No. 3—Sustainability on Demand: Influencing Product Specifications

Health care has an opportunity to maximize its investment in sustainable food by increasing the overall number of suitable products available on the market, and collaborating with vendors allows small and large hospitals alike to steer product development.

Working with Food Service Partners, a local production commissary, Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Hospitals serve approx­imately 4,500 healthy, sustainable and tasty meals across 22 facilities each day. To move the needle on sustainable purchasing, Kaiser has partnered with its supply chain to create custom products that meet its sustainability criteria while also addressing dietary and allergy concerns across a diverse patient population.

To increase the procurement of meats raised sustainably and without the routine use of antibiotics, the Kaiser National Nutrition team looked for high-volume products in order to get the most out of each conversion. What rose to the top was a custom meatloaf—a comfort-food favorite of patients.

Kaiser leveraged its existing relationship with the processor. This type of partnership enabled Kaiser to control the ingredients going into its meatloaf, including sustainably raised beef.

“It is a very clean product … meaning few ingredients—all recognizable. No fillers, no soy. And it tastes amazing,” remarked Kathleen Reed, sustainable food program manager and national farmers market coordinator. With a minimal 10 ingredients and excluding any preservatives, Kaiser has created a product that stretches across many diets, from soy-free to low-sodium.

Also, when reviewing suppliers, Kaiser identified several essential criteria. Strauss Meats’ grass-fed beef combined the sustainability of pasture-raised beef with the human health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and was raised without routine antibiotics. The final requirement was that Strauss Meats was able to partner with Kaiser’s selected processor.

Once the vendor connections have been made, staying close to the process is crucial. Reed explained, “Be specific about limitations on sodium and other ingredients involved. Manufacturers will come with recommendations, and you need to be clear. These companies want to meet the needs that are out there, and if they don’t know what they are, they will just develop products and hope they sell.”

Kaiser’s collaborative product development has introduced a new product to the health care segment that is sustainable and meets the mission of patient health, all while being absolutely delicious.

Moving the Needle

Ensuring the long-term health of our patients, communities and planet goes beyond individual purchasing decisions. The journey toward healthier foods and food systems requires that we cast a wide net to gather an array of solutions that will aid in the transformation.

Innovative solutions are the result of active dialogue and deep engagement with producers, processors and distributors. Whether large or small, rural or urban, self-operated or contract-managed, the development of strong relationships coupled with the conveyance of detailed product needs will help open the floodgates of innovation and provide an array of channels for all those seeking better health through better food.