From Farm to Patient Tray: Retrofitting the supply chain to meet hospitals’ demand for local food

Kendra Klein

October 22, 2014

Good Food Web

Hospitals and other large institutional buyers represent a major marketing opportunity for good food entrepreneurs like farms and ranches. But how can the two ends of the food chain best connect? Guest author Kendra Klein cites one success story happening in Northern California.
Luis Vargas, Procurement Manager for Nutrition and Food Services at University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, receives a shipment of organic Satsuma mandarins from local family farm, Capay Organic, as part of the Farm Fresh Healthcare Project. Photo credit to Maryann BoosalisThis summer, the strawberries on patient trays at hospitals across the San Francisco Bay Area came from the same place they’ve been coming from for years - the warehouses of Bay Cities Produce, a regional food distribution company.  But some 10,000 pounds worth of ripe red berries made their way north on a Bay Cities’ truck from local family farmers Christine and Dale Coke.
While many local food efforts create new supply chains – either connecting buyers directly with farmers or developing food hubs that aggregate and distribute food based on a mission to support local farmers, six Bay Area hospitals are working with the system that is already in place.  
Two years ago, the hospitals launched a project to get more family-farmed produce onto Bay Cities’ trucks. To date, they have purchased nearly 84,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables from ten family farmers. A recent How-To Guide shares lessons learned along the way.
A little efficiency goes a long way
Rather than recreate the wheel, the hospital project retrofits the conventional supply chain to make it shorter and more transparent.  
The decision to work within the existing system came after years of tinkering with new wheels in the form of the Growers’ Collaborative (GC), a food hub coordinated byCommunity Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).  From 2004 to 2011, the Growers’ Collaborative aggregated and delivered family-farmed produce to schools, hospitals, universities, and corporate cafeteria out of locations in Ventura and Davis, California.
But “even at the height of its operation, GC struggled with structural inefficiencies,” says Ariane Michas, Program Manager at CAFF Hospital representatives learn about weather, labor, and food safety practices from farmer Mark Dwelley on a trip to Dwelley Farms organized by Bay Cities Produce. Photo credit to Kimberlee Alvariand co-author of a new report on the successes and missteps of the venture.  If a delivery truck broke down, the distribution system was hamstrung, and the warehouses were limited by inadequate refrigeration and insufficient access for trucks.
Creating new supply chain infrastructure “is often dependent on long-term philanthropic subsidies or internalizing costs that new food hubs don’t really have the capacity to absorb,” reflects Michas.
The current hospital project takes advantage of existing infrastructure, including Bay Cities’ fleet of trucks, refrigerated warehouse space, and an in-house food processing room where machines slice, dice, and chop in a fraction of the time it would take hospital kitchen staff to do the job.