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Sparrow Hits a Cultivate Michigan Milestone!

Michele Nikolai, Clinical Nutrition Manager, accepts a Cultivate Michigan award on behalf of Sparrow HospitalBy Abby Harper, MSU Extension Community Food Systems Educator

April 8, 2019

In October 2018 at the Michigan Good Food Summit, Sparrow Hospital in Lansing was honored as one of four institutions reaching key milestones toward the Michigan Good Food Charter goal of purchasing 20% Michigan food by 2020. Sparrow received this award for documenting five percent local food purchasing in 2016 through Cultivate Michigan. Sparrow’s commitment to health, local sourcing, and sustainability goes well beyond this landmark.

Michele Nikolai, Clinical Nutrition Manager with Sparrow’s Department of Food and Nutrition, has been involved in the local food journey at Sparrow since 2009. What started as a passion for bringing fresh, whole, nutritious foods to patients and clients shifted to a growing interest in local sourcing. “I realized this was an opportunity to affect change,” Nikolai recalls, and the launch of the Michigan Good Food Charter a few months later in 2010 added energy to the bubbling interest in shifting purchasing decisions. Soon, staff signed on to the charter goal of purchasing 20% local food!

The Michigan Good Food Charter and the Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) provide structural support to Sparrow, and other institutions, as staff prioritize local food purchasing and connecting with other health-focused initiatives. In 2014, Sparrow built off the Good Food Charter commitment and signed onto Healthcare without Harm’s Healthy Food in Healthcare challenge, prioritizing better quality meat and fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Along with shifting food purchasing practices, they are aiming to reduce waste generation. The hospital is working on initiatives to decrease water and electricity usage, increase recycling, and eliminate Styrofoam. Starting in 2017 through the Scraps to Soil program, Sparrow now diverts roughly 10 tons of food waste per month from the landfill and into compost.

As is common with many institution’s stories, Sparrow’s local food purchasing has depended on strong support from leadership. Over the last 10 years, several shifts in leadership and contracts with group purchasing organizations (GPO) have resulted in varying levels of commitment to local food. It became clear that in order to maintain commitments to the goals of the Good Food Charter and other initiatives, they needed to build internal policies to institutionalize steering committees and articulate their goals. In 2017, clearer communication around priorities with their GPO facilitated a significant increase in local food purchasing options, which were unavailable prior to that time. This allowed Sparrow to increase to 26.5% Michigan foods of their total food budget! In 2018, the creation of an internal sustainability steering committee set the groundwork to assess sustainability efforts throughout the organization and set goals.

Other institutions can benefit from Sparrow’s learning. Through their journey, Nikolai notes several strategies that can help other institutions aiming to incorporate local food purchasing policies:

  1. Make local food purchasing goals clear to vendors. This communication helped Sparrow navigate conversations with their GPO and relay their values clearly.
  2. Create internal food policies to help support changes in practices when teams change. While Sparrow had several hiccups with administrative changes, they are currently making efforts to write clear food policies to continue practices when teams or staff members change.
  3. Showcase the benefits of your efforts and practices. Publicizing small wins and highlighting benefits not only emphasizes the improvements to leadership but also increases recognition and support among clients and customers.

While the staff at Sparrow are always looking towards the next checkpoint, there is no doubt that they have made strides to institutionalize local food purchasing and other sustainability priorities. Congratulations on the milestone, and keep up the good work!