St. Mary’s brings healthy food to staff, visitors
It’s midday on a Wednesday in June, and the produce stand in the lobby of St. Mary’s Hospital is busy. Hospital employees and visitors alike are circling the hand-made cart, choosing from picked-that-morning veggies and fruits supplied by Athens Land Trust from a variety of small, local farms.
“In 2015, we opened a small-scale stand as an experiment to find out if the idea of providing locally sourced produce at the hospital was viable,” says Rory Mathisen, St. Mary’s Manager of Community Benefits. “It turned out to be a much bigger success than anyone had thought possible. This year, we’re building on the things that worked well last year, and the Athens Land Trust is working to add more growers, more diversity, and larger quantities to the stand.”
The assortment of garden goods changes from week to week, migrating as the seasons change. In late June, cool-weather produce such as strawberries, beets and collards give way to warm-weather staples such as blueberries, tomatoes, corn and okra. When fall comes, the selection shifts again, moving towards collards, turnips, sweet potatoes and other products that prefer late-season conditions.
In addition, ALT provides some locally processed foods as well, such as honey, jam, bread, and flavored butters. It’s not uncommon to find eggs – even duck eggs – among the offerings.
All of which raises the question: Why?
The answer, Mathisen says, is simple: to improve health.
“Every three years, we conduct a community health needs assessment,” Mathisen said. “In recent years, our assessments have shown that limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a significant problem in the communities we serve. We also heard that our own staff sometimes have trouble finding time to buy and prepare locally sourced foods. We have lots of great open-air farmers markets in our area, but they aren’t always convenient for many people.”
Locally grown produce – especially from farms that meet organic standards – is nutritionally dense, to use a term from nutritional science. It contains no added sugars or chemicals and is rich with vitamins and minerals. Since products can be picked at the perfect point of ripeness just hours before coming to market, there is no loss of nutritional value due to early picking, long-distance shipping and extended storage.
“By partnering with Athens Land Trust, our produce stand provides quick, easy and convenient access to high quality produce for our staff and visitors. It also creates an additional market that helps support local farmers,” Mathisen said. “It’s good for everyone at every stage of the farm-to-consumer process.”
Another fact that was turned up by St. Mary’s research is that many people today just don’t cook the way previous generations did, Mathisen said. As a result, many people are more comfortable swinging through a drive-thru or sticking a package in the microwave than with peeling an ear of corn or blanching a mess of beans. What’s more, they are concerned that cooking with fresh foods will take too much time out of their already overburdened schedule.
“That’s why we partnered with our Nutritional Service Department to create easy-to-fix, healthy recipes that highlight products available at the produce stand,” Mathisen said. “Once or twice a month, we’ll prepare a dish using the ‘item of the week’ and serve samples. It’s a good way to show how to make something healthy in a hurry.”
St. Mary’s Produce Stand is open every Wednesday into December from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the hospital lobby at 1230 Baxter Street. All are welcome. The Produce Stand accepts cash, checks, EBT cards and most debit and credit cards.