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.
[photo credit] Cathryn Wellner