Guest Post: Wendy Liscow

November 12, 2008

Program Officer Wendy Liscow contemplates the importance of local foods and discovers how they can transform even the worst reputation: hospital food! This is the final installment of our Environment Stories series.

Inspiring a New Vision for Institutional Food

I recently joined a friend’s book club, and at our first meeting, we all pitched a few books that we thought the group would enjoy reading. There were plenty of books on my fiction list, but I decided to choose two books that had transformed my relationship with food: Michael Pollan‘s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. These books both give new meaning to the old saying, “You are what you eat.”

Perhaps I made a lousy pitch, but when I finally paused and looked around the group for approval, I found myself looking at polite faces trying to mask the fact that the last thing they wanted to read about was our food system. I tried again, using more enthusiasm, superlatives and histrionics this time. Still, nothing. I let it go…for now.

Driving home, I contemplated what made me care about where our food comes from. As a nearly lifelong vegetarian, I have a heightened awareness of everything that I ingest. Professionally, I have the opportunity to meet people who have dedicated their lives to building local food systems, teaching the benefits of organic farming, preserving farmland, and making sure that people are aware of the energy involved in the luxury of eating blueberries (for example) year round. Indeed, I became a local foods supporter after visiting many passionate environmental leaders who are working against all odds to make a healthier environment for my children and my children’s children.

Recently I met with Ann Karlen, Director of the Fair Food program of White Dog Community Enterprises. Her “Farm to Institution” project seeks to revolutionize institutional food service by developing relationships between farmers, distributors, and food service providers. As educator, matchmaker and advocate, she helps mid-size farmers tap into the newly-created institutional demand for a local food supply network.

This summer, Ann invited me to a meeting over a delicious gourmet meal made from local products at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Now, I think we can all agree that “gourmet meal” and “Hospital” do not belong in the same sentence – until now. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with locally grown roasted portabella mushrooms and red peppers on a freshly baked hearty roll from a local artisan bakery, vegetable pilaf, goat milk yogurt and fresh berry parfait! The food was delicious, but it was the dedicated hospital staff who helped me understand how you can change a culture, one person at a time.

Shelley Chamberlain, Assistant Director for Dining Services, and Mary Grant, Assistant Director for Production Services in the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, have been working with Fair Food for the past three years and have become true local food believers. The same is true for Fran Cassidy from Cooper Hospital in Camden and Gary Giberson of Sustainable Fare, a food service contractor at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, who were also at the meeting. These local food converts extolled the transformations that they have witnessed in their institutions: hospital CEOs have signed Health Food pledges, and vegetable consumption at their hospital cafeterias has increased 450%. Employees are purchasing shares in the local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and receiving fresh vegetables from a local farmer every week to cook at home. Lawrenceville students have learned which foods grow in which season, and they have made an effort to grow their own food.

Shelley and Mary captured the local food fervor best: “This is the most fun we have had in 32 years of institutional food service!”

Through the Fair Food and Farm to Institution projects, White Dog Community Enterprises has been able to teach thousands of adults and students to think about what they are putting in their bodies every day and how their choices not only impact their health, but also our food system and our energy consumption.

Now, if only I could get my book club members to join me for a meal at one of the Fair Food member institutions, I am confident I could get my book choices on the reading list.