Toronto’s Push-Pull on Local Food

We’ve learned a lot in the past decade about the links between food and health, but public policy is slow to catch on. So the news that a hospital in Toronto is committed to buying local food and serving gourmet fare is worth celebrating. Scarborough Hospital has hired chef Joshna Maharaj to lift their food from the the usual bland fare to something that will improve patient health.

Most Canadian hospitals have jettisoned in-house cooking and even, in many cases, their kitchens, in the interests of economy. Along with convenience and low cost has come decreased quality and increased patient dissatisfaction. Maharaj hopes to turn that around. She’s quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying, “Food needs a champion. It needs someone to fight for it. What you eat directly impacts your health and recuperation.”

What makes the year-long experiment possible is a $191,000 grant to Scarborough Hospital from the Greenbelt Fund. The hospital was inspired by the experience of Kaiser Permanente. The U.S.-based health maintenance organization has launched farmers markets, sourced food locally, and offered healthy food instead of fast food in their facilities.

I lived in Oakland, California, for fifteen months and was a member of Kaiser Permanente. I often shopped at the Food Farmacy, a deli and food store offering fresh, organic foods, located where employees could grab fast, healthy fare for lunch or between shifts. Snack bars and cafeterias offered food so good they were worth a trip to the hospital just for a meal. Dr. Preston Maring, who is passionate about food, started Kaiser’s first hospital-based farmers’ market. For years he has been posting recipes based on whatever is fresh at the market.

Hospitals throughout North America are keeping an eye on Kaiser Permanente. The Globe and Mail reports that Winnipeg hosts two regular markets, along with one in Nova Scotia and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “But few have attempted a full-scale re-embrace of local foods and conventional cooking for the in-patient menu.”

Joshna Maharaj is launching her program just as the City of Toronto’s proposal for a buy-local food policy has come under fire.  Proposed under the previous mayor, the policy is now going to council with a split vote, which means “no recommendation”.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, Betty Jean Crews, points out that cheaper is not always better. “I think we need to look at why something is cheaper,” she is quoted in the Toronto Star.  “What we produce in Ontario is not only healthy and save, but we do it with labour standards that are better than any I know and environmental standards that are better than a lot of countries.”

So there will be a lot of attention focused on Scarborough Hospital. Joshna Maharaj has a major task ahead of her, to incorporate fresh, local, foods into a medical system perennially on a financial diet. Kaiser Permanente has shown it’s possible, and Maharaj is enthusiastic and skilled enough to be off to a promising start.

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[photo credit] Cathryn Wellner


Jim Ven
Jim Ven10 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Abbe A.
Azaima A6 years ago

hard to steer a big ship

Lynette B.
Lynette B6 years ago

This is a great start. As the article points out, buying cheaper is not always better. Once we overcome that mentality, we can learn to put more value into what we purchase - quality v.s. quantity, even if it means readjusting our spending habits. After all, with respect to healthier food, it is what we are putting into our bodies. Wouldn't we want healthier choices?

We may end up spending a larger portion of our disposable income on food, but we are still much further ahead, and more fortunate, than people in poorer countries. The dollars spent on food would still be only a small percentage of our total disposable income. It may mean less of other comsumer type products. However, realistically, we really don't need those, we just want that stuff.

clara H.
Clara Hamill6 years ago

Good idea for this hospital.

Bernadette P.
Berny p6 years ago

Good luck !

Bernadette P.
Berny p6 years ago

Bravo, Scarborough Hospital! A great step in the right direction!

Kamil Adam
Kamil Adam6 years ago

thank you for sharing

Laure H.
Laure H6 years ago

Bravo, Scarborough Hospital! A great step in the right direction!

Jamie Oliver has done a great job showing schools - here and in the UK - that better food is available without changing the budget. Transferring that to the hospital setting is do-able.

I am eagerly awaiting news that hospitals begin using Dr. Gabriel Cousens' methods for reversing type 2 diabetes via diet within as short a span as 4 days (I've watched that transformation) and 3 weeks. As more people realize how important healthy organic produce is for their healing, the greater the demand. And as the demand grows, so too will the healthy choices.

Should hospitals and other public facilities support locally grown produce? I think that if they are forced to do so by inflexible policy, it could have a negative effect on the quality of the local food....with competing farmers feeling the need to be less organic to grab a bigger part of the "buy local" pie. It is better for these big buyers to have a mandate to buy the freshest, cleanest/most organic, non-irradiated, non-GMO food possible, and to eat in season as much as possible ...then let the locals step up to the plate.

In our neck of the woods, lots of information-sharing about organic foods (including frank talks with the buyers in our groceries about why we buy certain thing from sources besides them) have resulted in so many more organic items in the groceries, purer ingredient lists on packaged foods, more farmers' markets, more b

Krystyna H.
Krystyna H6 years ago

I have no idea how to answer the poll question. I worked in a hospital kitchen one summer. Hospitals have some of the worst food on the planet - comparable to airline food - or a factory workers' employee cafeteria. As long as the food product is listed on an official food guide as a bona fide addition to a diet, it does not matter to the hospital if it comes out of a can, or from the cheapest frozen food dealer, or from a mix. Jell-o and Sara Lee are the dessert chefs.

So where locally grown comes into this equation, I can't say. If they are now out-sourcing their food preparation then it still has to come in within budget. Local, fresh farm produce would not even be on their radar. This is something for fancy hotels, restaurants and for upper-middle class people who indulge in farmers' markets who like to be picky about what they eat.

Unless this green supplier can make it all come in on that budget-line, and is willing to take on all the hard work of working with fresh produce, and make it in batches for thousands of patients in all the hospitals, three meals a day, every day, it won't work.

Honestly, I say this with irony- hospital food probably motivates people to get healthier faster so they can get out of the place and never have to eat there again. I got it free while I worked there and I chose to bring my own lunch.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Great start. The base line for your health is what you eat.