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Hospital farmers' market offers the right prescription for health

July/Aug. 2007 California Country magazine

Dr. Preston Maring decides to start a farmers' market at the hospital where he works.



Dr. Preston Maring's idea was simple: Instead of telling his patients to eat better, why not bring fresh fruits and vegetables directly to them?


Dr. Preston Maring, with patient Sederia Wesson, takes unique steps to encourage healthy eating. He's even been known to write prescriptions telling his patients to "find out what a pluot is and eat it" or "mix in more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet."

So he decided to start a farmers' market at the hospital where he works.

"It struck me that maybe we could do something here at this medical center that would really be good for the employees, good for our patients, good for our members and good for the surrounding neighborhood," said Maring.

His idea came to fruition in May 2003, when Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland launched its first farmers' market right outside the hospital building. The weekly market is open year-round on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

"Patients bring strawberries or cherries to their doctors as presents now," said Maring, an associate physician-in-chief who has a passion for food and cooking. "People tell me they schedule their appointments on Fridays so they can go to the market."

Maring added that having the farmers' market on site encourages patients, staff and the community to make the switch from prepared or processed foods to more fresh produce.

"Obviously what we eat on a daily basis is the primary determinant long term for our good health," he said. In terms of produce, the U.S. government recommends that adults eat 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables every day.

Maring said farmers' markets provide an important connection between consumers and the farmers who grow their food, and the hospital was the perfect vehicle to facilitate this link. With so many people working and going to their appointments, the Kaiser venue would offer farmers plenty of potential shoppers and foot traffic.

"If we can help the farmers earn a better income by bringing people to them to shop, then that will help long term with the sustainability of the small family farm," he said. "Everyone wins in this situation--the patients, physicians, employees and the farmers themselves."

Knowing nothing about managing farmers' markets, Maring sought the help of Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association and found farmers who were willing to try something different and set up shop at the hospital.

One of them was Greg Beccio, owner of Happy Boy Farms, which grows more than 80 different crops in various locations of Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Madera counties.


Greg Beccio, owner of Happy Boy Farms, a year-round vendor at the Kaiser Oakland farmer's markets shows off fresh-picked radishes from one of his farms in Northern California.

His booth features a variety of organic lettuce and salad greens, radishes, leeks, cabbages, squashes, onions, carrots and beans. Other vendors sell seasonal fruits, as well as orchids, cut flowers, honey products and fresh breads.

With 15 years of farmers' market experience, Beccio said he has a loyal following at the Kaiser Oakland farmers' market and is glad to bring quality produce to its patrons.

"(The farmers' market) serves people and it serves a purpose," said Beccio. "There's a lot of fresh produce that gets to people who otherwise may not have access to it, or they may not have the information or time to go to it."

Doris Lothlen, a Kaiser employee who considers herself health conscious, said she makes it a point to come out to the farmers' market every week on her breaks or lunch time to do her shopping.

"Around here, there's not really a whole lot of places where you can get fresh things," she said.

Hospital-based farmers' markets is not a new concept—Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa has operated a seasonal farmers' market since 1999, and Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. began operating a seasonal market as part of its employee health benefit program in 2001--but it is catching on. Thanks to Maring, more than 30 farmers' markets and farm stands have opened since 2003 at Kaiser facilities in six states, including 21 in California.

Sarah Handler, a Kaiser Oakland patient who lives a few blocks from the hospital, said not only is the farmers' market a wonderful idea, but it has also made it convenient for her to shop locally and healthfully.

"In fact, if I can't shop here, I find it very difficult because the things in the store just aren't the same, and they don't last. I'm so glad that (the market) is here and it's expanded to lots of other Kaisers," Handler said.

It appears that Maring's idea of pairing good health with good food is working. In a survey by Kaiser of more than 1,200 respondents, 71 percent of them said they are now eating more fruits and vegetables as a result of shopping at Kaiser's farmers' markets.

The health organization is now expanding its farm-to-hospital program by going beyond farmers' markets. Last fall, Kaiser began sourcing fresh produce from 15 small and beginning California farmers for some of its inpatient meals in 19 Northern California Kaiser hospitals. This year, Kaiser plans to further expand the program in Southern California with 30 farmers who will provide Kaiser kitchens and cafeterias with local produce.

Also this year, Kaiser Petaluma Medical Offices is partnering with Canvas Ranch of Sonoma County to do a community-supported agriculture program in which the consumer pays a subscription to a local farm and in return receives a weekly harvest.

"Simply stated, we are trying to generate as much demand as we can for locally grown, fresh food which is healthy, tasty and fun, and ultimately, supports people who grow our food," Maring said.

The doctor is in (the kitchen)

Dr. Preston Maring wears a white coat at work. At home it's more likely to be an apron.

The Oakland-based physician has a passion for food and cooking that he uses to inspire his patients and others—some 10,000 people in all—to achieve good health through healthy eating. And 10,000 is how many subscribers he's attracted to his weekly recipe e-mail service.

Maring's recipes, which he said he develops through trial and error, are uncomplicated and typically feature in-season, locally grown foods.

"I am not a trained chef," he said. "If I can cook it, anyone can."

An archive of Maring's recipes can be found at www.permanente.net. To subscribe to Maring's weekly e-mails, go www.kp.org/farmersmarketrecipes.

Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@cfbf.com.


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