Dr. Preston Maring is bringing farmers markets to hospitals.
Hospitals and food have a pretty lousy history together. It's a pairing that inspires memories of mysterious substances in space-aged plastic and spoon-fed jello under the boon of painkillers-not exactly a paragon of health promotion. But, as evidenced by people like Dr. Preston Maring, that's beginning to change.Six years ago Friday, Dr. Maring established a farmers market at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California. In so doing, he hoped not only to improve the quality of food in the vicinity of his offices, but to transform a medical center into a health center-for patients, for staff, for farmers, and for the entire neighborhood. Today, with some 30 farmers markets at Kaiser locations around the country-more are on the way-the movement is gaining traction. And Dr. Maring, fresh from penning the introduction to Eating Well in Season: The Farmer's Market Cookbook, offered to expound on the timeless value of good food begetting healthy living.GOOD:Farmers markets at hospitals: it's such a wonderfully simple and spot-on concept-it actually kind of blows my mind we haven't heard about it until now. Can you tell me what inspired the idea? PRESTON MARING: Sure. I've worked in women's health care with Kaiser Permanente for almost 38 years, and it's been clear to me the whole time that what people eat makes all the difference in the world as to what their health is going to be. It's just really, really critical. And obvious. Over the years, I've spent lots of time telling patients about their diet, but I've never been sure that I've made any significant changes on a broad scale-you can only do so much in the space of an office.G: Right. I'm reminded of the intro to your book, where you mention seeing vendors outside the hospital and thinking, What if there was some sort of commerce that was in line with the purpose, or the mission, of health care?PM: That's exactly right. As in, probably, at many hospitals, there are vendors that sell purses and jewelry and other things in the lobbies, and, although a lot of those things may be nice, they really don't have any kind of a connection to health care. So we put the market out front-on the main sidewalk, right in the middle of the foot traffic-where we could highlight fresh fruits and vegetables. It's great for the surrounding community, great for the people that work there, and great for the patients.G:Hospital cafeterias don't exactly have a reputation for good-or even edible-food. A farmer's market seems like a pretty significant shift, no?PM: Health care systems have always been experts at providing sick care, but [we're] trying to prevent illness in the first place. What better way than by good food?G:That's a great way to put it, but are you be sure it has a positive impact?PM: It absolutely has a positive impact. One of our hospital engineers is 53 years old and he's a big man-he used to weigh over 300 pounds-and I think he's lost 60 by starting to shop at the farmer's market every week and cook more at home.G: That's incredible. PM: It is, [and it goes beyond] the anecdotes from my own patients and coworkers. I mean, the focus on food is critical for health, obviously, [but] it's also very important for the local economy. We have right now a significant number of farmers who look to the institutional delivery of food as a real mainstay source of income for their families. And, on the economic side, it's a heck of a lot cheaper, ultimately, to cook a healthy meal at home than it is to spend money on expensive packaged foods and processed foods. So we've got the connection to health, economics, and then there's the obvious connection to the environment.G:And is this something that could spread to hospitals outside the Kaiser system? PM: The short answer is, absolutely. And it has. In just an hour on the phone with someone at another hospital [or university medical center], after looking at Google maps to figure out where a market might go and researching the farmer's market associations in the area, I can get somebody in touch with the various leaders they need to connect with. Wherever it happens, if we create the demand in the distribution system, just maybe more and more farmers will be able to stay on the land-and not have it taken over for yet another subdivision.G:Then another community can enjoy the benefits of fresh food, good health, and seasonal eating. PM: And what's better than a big, fresh, tasty, sweet peach in the middle of summer!