Kaiser Permanente Promotes Healthy Eating Through Farmers' Markets

Oakland, California has no shortage of farmers' markets. On Saturday, there's the massive Lake Merritt market. On Sunday, there's a burgeoning market in the parking lot of the DMV on Claremont in the Temescal neighborhood. On Tuesday, there's one on a strip of cement a few blocks from the Ashby BART where market-goers can fill up on produce if they missed out on the weekend offerings.

Standing proudly among these large-scale markets is a smaller one, every Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital on Broadway. Despite its relatively small selection, it may be one of the more important markets in the state.

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The market began in 2003, when Kaiser physician Preston Maring realized that a farmers' market on the hospital grounds would be a natural fit, "because what people eat has a crucial impact on their health." That's not exactly a profound thought, but if you ever happened to visit a hospital cafeteria in the early oughts, with offerings generally fried and certainly gross, it was a dramatic one.

The market did so well that Kaiser opened another one at their national headquarters in downtown Oakland. (It's still there every Wednesday afternoon.) Eleven years later, there are over 50 Kaiser-associated farmers' markets spread out across four states, including several in Los Angeles. (You can search for one in your area here.)

"The goal of the Kaiser Permanente farmers' markets is to address the obesity epidemic and to improve the health of our employees, members, and community residents by making fresh fruits and vegetables convenient and readily available," a Kaiser spokesperson said.

Obesity leads to all sorts of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and depression. Obesity also disproportionately affects low-income families, which is why Kaiser makes it a point to accept all forms of payment benefits, including EBT, CalFresh, and SNAP. The markets also provide free cooking demonstrations as a way to making a lasting dietary change within the home.

This focus on preventative care through healthy food options also found its way into Kaiser's hospital food preparation. The company devotes roughly 19% of their annual food spending budget on trying to obtain sustainable food, "nearly two times as much sustainable food as most other hospital systems of our size." (They expect this number to grow to 20 percent by the end of 2015.) The food they purchase also has to fall within one of three criteria: (1) Produced within 250 miles of a facility; (2) No pesticides, antibiotics or hormones; (3) Certified sustainable by a third-party eco-label like Certified Organic or Animal Welfare Approved.

(This isn't to say Kaiser's doing everything perfectly. As I write this, over 2,000 of their mental health workers are starting a five-day strike in protest of "chronic understaffing," a strike coming only two months after a nursing strike over similar complaints. The hospital chain certainly has issues when it comes to its work environment.)

All of this is more "good start" than "great job" for the American healthcare system. Nearly 50% of fresh produce that Kaiser purchases annually is sustainably produced or locally grown, which is laudable, but only 6% of their fruits and veggies are certified organic. This is troubling when you realize that this number is still twice the national average. Kaiser's focus on preventative care through promotion of healthful options is something other hospitals would be wise to try to duplicate. Frankly, it should be the bare minimum that all hospitals strive to achieve.

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