In 2014, 11.5-acre St. Luke's Rodale Institute Organic Farm provided patients, visitors and staff of the St. Luke's University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., with more than 44,000 pounds of organic produce.
The farm—which came out of a partnership between St. Luke’s and the Rodale Institute, an organization that studies the link between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people—distributes organically grown local produce to all six St. Luke’s hospitals for in-patient and cafeteria meals.
Since then, farmers and hospital chefs have determined ways to make the most out of their hyper-local partnership. Click through for five lessons they’ve learned along the way.
1. Choose crops wisely
Last year, the corn at the farm at St. Luke’s Anderson Campus was gobbled up by hungry racoons just hours before organic vegetable farmer Lynn Trizna arrived to harvest the ears.
The corn was to be used that day on St. Luke’s cafeteria menus, and Paul Meola, Anderson campus’ executive chef, had to scramble to find a replacement.
Since then, chefs and farmers agreed they’d no longer prepare corn, according to an article in The Morning Call. “It’s not worth it,” Trizna said. “It’s a loss.”
2. Work with multiple vendors
Chefs need to be willing to do more food prep and source food from multiple vendors—and farmers likewise must learn how to compete with giant wholesalers. In many cases, chefs are willing to pay a little more for items that are fresher, healthier and support the local economy, Aaron de Long, manager of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, told The Morning Call.
“That’s difficult, because no farm is going to be able to provide the whole food plate, everything from bread to pepperoni to tomatoes,” he said.
3. Balance efficiency and quality
Though the farm-fresh produce is high quality, it’s not always easy to work with. St. Luke’s cafeteria cooks said their workloads increased as they took on the farm’s produce.
“[We were] coming from an operation that primarily used precut, prewashed, predicted vegetables and things like that,” Meola said. “It takes a lot of work and planning to get that stuff processed. Not only that, but there are times where you have to be really aware about what’s going to be harvested so you can balance your ordering and your menu planning.”
Two things they did: Chefs stopped cooking with heirloom tomatoes because of their odd shape (they wouldn’t fit in the industrial tomato slicers), and they stopped peeling the carrots (the skins are tender enough to require only a good scrubbing).
4. Narrow the veggie variety
Trizna told The Morning Call that she decided to streamline the scope of the produce she grows for the cafeteria. She still grows non-standard crops like okra, kohlrabi and tomatillos, but in smaller quantities.
“We want to provide as much variety as possible, but not on the scale of wholesale,” she said. “In order to be an efficient and sustainable wholesale operation, you have to be really good at what you grow. You can’t be really good at a crop if you’re growing 30 crops.”
5. Show off
Meola and Trizna host farmers and cooks interested in starting similar partnerships. And they hold catering events to promote the project. They might try some new recipes, new crops, new distribution cycles and new tools, too.