A Spoonful of Local Food Helps the Medicine Go Down

One hospital's commitment to providing local food for patients pays off for the entire community.
By Cara Lucas

Starchy images of bland mashed potatoes, mystery meat, and Jell-O that seems to come alive on your tray dissolve into thin air during lunchtime at a 334-bed hospital in rural Wisconsin. It is taking nutrition back to its roots—and digging up the healing powers of a local, fresh food menu for visitors and employees alike.
Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is reinforcing the proverbial foundation on which the hospital was first established—to be good stewards of the earth, its natural resources, and its beauty. The hospital’s founding Sisters, the Sisters of Saint Francis, side-by-side with the HSHS (Hospital Sisters Health System), launched their initial mission to protect the environment and to reflect their values of “simplicity, hospitality, cleanliness, and good stewardship.” They stand on the belief that “every human person requires the holistic care of body, mind, and spirit regardless of race, creed, or ability to pay.”
Today their ancient principles manifest themselves in a progressive way. By incorporating nature’s bounty into the healing process, they are re-committed to providing an economical and healthy lifestyle for local Wisconsin patrons.
In 2008, Sacred Heart Hospital dedicated 10 percent of its $2 million budget to purchasing local foods. Rick Beckler, Director of Hospitality Services, says, “It’s our responsibility to buy local food to not only provide the best in nutrition, but to support our local agriculture industry.”
By doing this, Sacred Heart truly nurtures not only the patients, but also the community at large. The hospital seems to have it all covered: it donates excess amounts of food to Meals on Wheels and the local St. Francis Food Pantry (more than 8,000 pounds each year), financially supports farmers in surrounding counties, and conserves energy by eliminating excessively long commutes that transport food to the hospital from far away places. Not to mention, since 2008, more than 12 tons of scrap produce has been donated to a local ranch for animal food. It’s a restorative cycle that seems to pay it forward and, by applying the Franciscan philosophy, it seems that everyone wins.

It has been a learning process, however. In order to organize and formalize the partnership between farmers and the hospital, The Producers and Buyers Co-op carved its way into existence. With no previous examples to learn from, forming the co-op did encounter some bumps in the road. But it succeeded in bringing the two sides together and streamlined the buying and selling process, accurately defined the existing supply and demand, and made it easier to reach out to local farmers. It also enabled other organizations to participate in “buying local.”
A year later, after much success, Sacred Heart’s sister hospital, St. Joseph’s, in neighboring Chippewa Falls, joined in and together they pledged 15 percent of the two hospitals’ budgets (totaling $2.3 million in a 12-month period) toward purchasing locally from the fledgling co-op.

Sacred Heart Hospital also formed a Green Team that sparks environmental initiatives all around the 29.3 acre campus. It strives to “facilitate the protection of the environment and our natural resources in concert with the Franciscan tradition to respect creation and safeguard its people.”

Tranquil, green spaces termed “Healing Gardens” are designed to create a soothing oasis for staff, patients, and their loved ones. Embracing their Franciscan beliefs, these gardens are meant to aesthetically restore the soul and to reinforce the importance of nature in the healing process.

The Sisters’ original vision of complete holistic healthcare is piecing itself back together through the push for local food for its patients, employees, and visitors. It sets an example of what the benefits of buying locally can do for a community at large, starting at the core of what determines a person’s health—the food they consume.