Bringing the Farm to a VA Hospital
Editor’s Note: This guest feature is written by D’Arcy Rea, a dietitian (and trained chef) from the Hines VA Hospital. We’re glad to have her tell us about the start of a unique farmers market at her hospital.
These days it is not too hard to find a farmers’ market in a nearby neighborhood almost every day of the week, especially if you live in the city. Suburban markets have also increased in the last several years, often with many of the same farmers and vendors you find at the more familiar Green City Market or Daley Plaza farmers market. However, finding a market on hospital grounds is not so common which can really seem counter-intuitive. When you hear alarming statistics on obesity and chronic illnesses in our population it only makes sense to bring good health directly to those who need it most.
It was this very reason that I dreamt of starting a farmers’ market at Hines VA Hospital that would serve both patients and hospital staff. If any of the vendors could be veterans, then all the better! What seemed like a daunting task became quite easy when there was a “meet-n-greet” between a dozen or so employees with the new hospital director in the summer of 2007. It happened that this new director, Nathan Geraths, was from Madison WI, a city known for their exceptional farmers market they hold around their Capitol square. Well, when he asked me “What would you change here at Hines Hospital if you had a magic wand?” my immediate answer was “I’d love a farmers market. You’re from Madison so you must know how wonderful they can be!” The golden egg answer: “Then do it!”
Since Hines is a teaching hospital we were lucky enough to have a dietetic internship so the incoming class was tasked with helping to build the market from scratch: writing rules, soliciting farmers, marketing, the works. Everything had to be ready to go for the summer of 2008. This was no fly-by-night operation because remember, this is a government facility. Every step needed to be in writing and approved by a multitude of people. Surveys of patients and employees had to be taken, presentations were being made, and most important of all, farmers were sought after in droves.
The big break in finding vendors came when Candy Vitalo the nursing director of an intensive care unit mentioned to her brother-in-law she had been surveyed about a possible farmers’ market, that wouldn’t that be nice? Her brother-in-law, Jim Vitalo of Herbally Yours, emphatically agreed because he called me and asked if not only could he be a vendor but could he bring some other vendors he knew from the Oak Park Farmers’ Market? Pennies from heaven.
Starting out small was the plan to make sure it was well accepted both by patrons and by vendors. I remember worrying the first year since not everyone was familiar with seasonality of fruits and vegetables or the importance of supporting local agriculture and communities. But the day came when I got my confirmation that the market was a succes. In mid-July I was walking past a nursing lunchroom and there were four ladies that were completely silent except for the slurping sounds of them savoring juicy peaches at the peak of ripeness. No words needed be said.
This is now the second successful year of the Hines VA Hospital Farmers’ Market and vendors include:
- Hardin Farms from Eau Claire MI selling mostly fruit and some vegetables
- Triple A Farms from St Anne IL with a wide variety of vegetables
- Ted’s Greenhouse from Tinley Park selling nursery plants (Ted is a WWII Veteran and when asked last year if he was returning this year he said “If I’m alive, I’ll be there!” That and “I love the ladies, give me a hug!”)
- Herbally Yours from Willow Springs IL with specialty vinegars and culinary herbs in the form of salt-free rubs, blends and herbal dips (Jim is a Vietnam Veteran)
- Tomato Mountain has organic salsas, sauces, and fruit jams
- Dennanne Farms selling honey and honey products
The next step is to begin purchasing some of these goods for the food service department which in turn would provide patients with these wonderful items on their meal trays. As Hippocrates said, “Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”