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Product Development Builds Capacity for Farm to Institution in Kalamazoo

“We’ve been building systems that allow our cooks to make fresh food accessible, period.” – Jason McClellan, Executive Chef, Bronson Methodist Hospital

By Mariel Borgman, MSU Extension Community Food Systems Educator and MFIN Tech Ed Subcommittee member

The Inspiration

ValleyHub staff process carrots for institutional customersTen years ago, Bronson Methodist Hospital made a commitment to source as much food as possible from local and regional farmers and producers. The Bronson Healthy Living Campus, a partnership between Bronson and Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), grew out of this commitment and the community health and local food systems values shared by the executive teams at both organizations. Grant Fletcher, the System Director of Healthy Living and Sustainability at Bronson Healthcare, described the partners’ original goal as answering the question: “What does our curriculum and our campus have to look like to ensure that the people who are preparing the food in institutional kitchens have the culinary background and food system knowledge… to bring local, seasonal, fresh, healthy food to large populations?” Ultimately, KVCC’s ValleyHub, a farm, food hub, and education center located just blocks from Bronson Methodist Hospital, emerged as one of the community’s signature programs. ValleyHub fills a gap by distributing whole and lightly processed fresh food from Southwest Michigan farms to local institutional customers. With ValleyHub’s help, Bronson is moving towards a goal of 70% local food sourcing in the one million meals it serves each year.

Strategy & Implementation

Initially, Bronson’s Food and Nutrition Services staff compiled purchasing information and identified an ideal product list that they wanted to source locally. Carrots stood out as a good fit from the beginning, since Bronson was buying large volumes of carrot coins and carrot sticks that could be easily replaced by local carrot coins processed at ValleyHub.

Bronson works closely with ValleyHub’s staff in product development to identify new products that work well for both parties.  A big win this year was the ability to source locally-grown chopped romaine through ValleyHub. The teams also work to find uses for surplus products that farms need to move. This has been the case with another lightly processed product, soaked diced potatoes, which Bronson is using in soups.

Fresh vegetables are received at ValleyHub's loading dock.

Benefits

Working with ValleyHub has resulted in a 10% increase in Bronson’s local food purchases over the last two years, up to 40% from about 30%. At the same time, the cost per meal has gone down. “Our first order from the food hub was $300 and our most recent was $3,000. We’ve really changed the way that we order,” says Jason McClellan, Executive Chef at Bronson. By buying whole and lightly processed foods, institutions can reduce unnecessary waste, cost and required storage space. Another major advantage of working with ValleyHub is their ability to provide traceability directly from the farm to the end consumer, which is critical to ensuring food safety.

Challenges & Lessons Learned

Thanks to the groundwork laid by the health system’s executive team, Bronson Food and Nutrition Services had strong organizational buy-in and support for their local purchasing efforts. Some of the primary barriers they face stem from customer expectations, and they are working to change those expectations in the long run by educating customers on the impact of the food system on the local economy and human health. For example, many customers are used to eating iceberg lettuce, but Bronson is now asking them to transition to something with a completely different flavor, color, and texture, such as a nutrient-packed microgreen. Bronson’s staff helps customers navigate foods that may look or taste very different from what they are used to.

“When you’re laying the foundation for this work, it is so overwhelmingly important to meet and talk and understand where everyone in the relationship is coming from and what barriers exist for them, and what their capacity is,” says Fletcher. The success of Bronson’s partnership with ValleyHub would not be possible without candid, transparent, face-to-face communication. Both sides have a deep appreciation for where the other is coming from, as a small business or farmer or as an institution with the need to meet customer expectations and timelines. It is this shared understanding and commitment to mutual success that allows this farm to hospital table partnership to thrive.


Visit the Cultivate Michigan featured food page to learn more about how to source and serve Michigan carrots!