Health-minded Farmers’ Markets

Hospital-hosted farmers’ markets offer an alternative revenue source for farmers while playing a role in public health and health education.

by Dani Yokhna
Harris County Health District's Healthy Harvest Farmers Market
Courtesy Harris County Hospital District
Healthy Harvest Farmers Markets, hosted in partnership with the nonprofit Veggie Pals, serve doctors, patients and the surrounding community in the Harris Country Hospital District.

Many proponents of local-food initiatives would agree that support for locally raised fare is good for the local economy, local farmers and citizens’ health. As nutrition education comes to the forefront of healthier living, health-care systems are looking to farmers’ markets at their facilities to provide access to healthy foods and community interaction.

While there are currently no statistics on the number of health-care systems now hosting farmers’ markets, Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, says many new markets that have sprouted in the past few years have incorporated a health emphasis into their missions.

“Hospital-hosted farmers’ markets, in particular, have employee and patient wellness at heart, and [they] see farmers’ markets as an ideal way to provide their community of staff and patients with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as a social space that’s fun, inviting and dedicated to forging healthy relationships,” she says.

“In Camden, [N.J.], there is really a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. There is no supermarket in Camden, even,” says Bob Hockel, vice president of ambulatory services and development for Virtua Health. Such food deserts are all too common, creating a roadblock for health-care patients trying to eat better.

That’s why Virtua partnered with the Camden Area Health Education Center to offer a seasonal, once-weekly farmers’ market. Like many health-care-facility farmers’ markets, Virtua Camden hosts health-education programs each week, offering nutritional counseling, health screenings, dental education, dance lessons or cooking demonstrations. Partnering with the Virtua Foundation, the market is an educational resource for nearby schools. Students receive “market dollars” to purchase produce to share with their families. Senior citizens receive shopping vouchers through Camden AHEC, and community members can make food-stamp purchases, too.

“It brings a lot of life to the corner on Thursdays,” Hockel says.

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Farmers are finding the most popular products are those that are convenient and tailored to the community surrounding the health-care facility. At the 10 Harris County Hospital District Healthy Harvest Farmers Markets, in Harris County, Texas, “the mixed-fruit bags go quickly—usually banana, orange and apple—because you can eat them on the spot while you’re waiting for your clinic appointment or prescriptions,” says Ann Barnes, MD, HCHD’s medical director of weight management services and disease prevention. “At some clinics, collard greens and broccoli are popular; at others, cactus and mangoes. Our clinics are in a variety of culturally diverse communities, and what sells is directly related to those cultural preferences.”

Miller offers this suggestion for making sure a hospital-hosted farmers’ market is the right fit for your farm business before you get involved as a vendor:

“Farmers interested in selling at a hospital-hosted farmers’ market should ask who the intended customer base is and get a sense of the management’s marketing strategies to ensure that hospital employees and, hopefully, members of the surrounding community are encouraged not only to attend the market but actually buy fresh produce and other healthy foods there on a regular basis. No one wants to sell at a market, no matter where it’s hosted, where the customer base just hangs around chatting and sampling the free food without actually purchasing the food that will feed them and their families.”

Ask your local hospital system about farmers’ market opportunities, and if there are none yet, consider developing one. Health Care Without Harm has a guide for starting and managing farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs at hospitals.


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