Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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From apples to ambulances

Hospital farmers’ markets make an emergency delivery of healthy food

Inspired by the local food movement, farmers’ markets are sprouting up faster than dandelions. Some have even taken root at healthcare facilities like the Hospital for Sick Children in downtown Toronto.

The outdoor market is held on Tuesdays (9am to 2pm) from June 9 to October, and features a rainbow of local Ontario produce, such as vegetables, organic eggs, honey, fruits, salad greens, berries, and products like pickles, jams and fresh baking.

So far, reviews of the market, which started in June 2008, have been delicious. “I really look forward to market days,” says regular shopper Irene Ushycky, director of rehabilitation and communications disorders at SickKids. “I pack a cooler in my trunk so I can load up on fresh local fruits and vegetables.” She adds, “I enjoy supporting the local farmers, and learning about how my food is grown.”

The festive atmosphere on University Avenue in downtown Toronto is also a draw. “It’s amazing to see this busy, busy urban street transformed into a rural farming oasis. I really like the community spirit it evokes,” says Ushycky.

Vendors set up colourful stalls in the hospital’s circular driveway and sell farm-fresh edibles to staff (the hospital employs about 6000 people), patients’ families, volunteers, visitors and the general public. 

Tracy Maccarone, director of food and nutrition services at SickKids, spearheaded the development of the market as a workplace health initiative. “I had read about the success of US hospital farmers’ markets and thought what a great idea. It just seemed like the perfect way to bring healthy, local eating options to the staff and our neighbours.”

She’s also a regular market shopper with a soft spot for fresh berries, local honey, organic eggs, homemade bread, artisanal greens and fresh garlic — to name a few. “The local garlic is amazing! It’s much more flavourful than the imported garlic you buy at grocery stores,” says Maccarone, who also likes the idea of reducing her carbon footprint by shopping locally.

Signed and Certified

After getting the green light from senior management, Maccarone coordinated her efforts with Robert Chorney, executive director, Farmers’ Markets Ontario as part of the organization’s MyMarket initiative. All participating MyMarket vendors are inspected and verified by Farmers’ Markets Ontario to guarantee they are actually producing the food they sell. These guidelines weed out what Chorney calls “hucksters” — people who purchase imported fruit and vegetables at the Ontario Food Terminal and pass it off at farmers’ markets as local produce.

“These guys muscle out the real local farmers. They don’t have a dime invested in any farm,” he says.

The organic homemade bread sold at the Hospital for Sick Children’s market illustrates the strict guidelines. The vendor grows the wheat, mills the flour, and bakes the bread. “It doesn’t get more virtuous than that,” says Chorney.

Angela Russo of Loffredo Fruit Farms in St. Catharines, Ontario, a market vendor who specializes in home-made baked goods, jams, berries, tender fruit such as peaches and pears, and fresh produce sums it up: “We can only sell what we grow.” Russo is famous for her mouthwatering fruit pies, fresh berry muffins and zucchini bread. “Because we don’t sell bananas on our farm, I can’t make and sell banana bread.”

Contagious enthusiasm

Current interest in farmers’ markets is intense. “This spring we’ve had more calls from people wanting to start markets than ever before. Normally we get about 15 to 30 calls a year. In the last three weeks, we’ve had 30,” says Chorney. 

What’s driving the renaissance of farmers’ markets? Three things, according to Chorney, who is also the founding president of Farmers’ Markets Canada. “The whole local food thing is huge right now, and it’s here to stay. People want fresher foods grown locally. Secondly, the economy: community groups are looking to do something new like put a bit of fizz in their downtowns. Lastly, the farmers are saying they’ve had enough — they want to sell direct and cut out the middleman.”

In the early 1990s, Ontario had about 60 markets. By the end of 2009, it’s estimated that about 165 will be up and running.

According to a new national study released in February 2009, the impact of farmers’ markets on the Canadian economy was reported to be up to $3.09 billion.

Farm fame

And when it comes to hospital farmers’ markets, turns out, SickKids isn’t alone. The Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Barrie, Ontario also hosts one.

Brenda Murray, RVH’s director of nutrition and food services describes the evolution of the market, which opened in the spring of 2008: “The idea of a farmers’ market came up when we were looking for ways to get local food onto the plates of hospital patients and staff. Everyone supported it because the partnership made perfect sense.”

Similar to SickKids, it’s promoted as a workplace wellness initiative. It’s held Wednesdays (10am to 3pm) from May 20 to October, and features a variety of fresh local foods including frozen free-range chicken and organic meats (lamb, pork and beef), local maple syrup, fresh baking, frozen homemade prepared gourmet meals, fruits, berries and vegetables, including artisanal greens. Perennials, flowers and vegetable sprouts are also available.

“The market has been incredibly well received,” says Murray, who has a penchant for the market’s oatmeal raisin cookies, fresh blueberries and apples. “It’s a win-win situation because it makes it convenient for staff (2200 and growing), volunteers, visitors and the local community to buy locally produced healthy foods, while supporting nearby farmers. It also educates people on the benefits of eating locally produced foods.”

Feeding the masses

The hospital and farming associations also provide recipes. “Shoppers may like the look of an eggplant, but have no idea how to cook it. The recipes provide inspiration,” explains Murray.

There is even a fourth-generation local beekeeper on hand. “We do well at the hospital market because people are more aware of the health benefits associated with eating local honey,” says Sandi Dickey of Dickie Bee Honey, located in Innisfil, Ontario. 

Staff also enjoy shopping during lunch and work breaks. “It’s such a neat perk because it means less running around on weekends,” says regular shopper Karen Fleming, director of the women’s clinical program and professional practice at RVH. Armed with a list, Fleming stocks up weekly on fresh produce and organic meats (which she stores in a cooler).

“It’s important to support the local farmers in these tough economic times,” explains Fleming.

And farmers appreciate the business. Lynda Van Casteren of Nicholyn Farms a vendor at the RVH market who specializes in farm-fresh local meats, and locally grown produce and baked goods, puts it this way: “Selling direct to the consumer really is the best way for local farmers to stay viable, and preserve their farmland.”

The farmer adds, “This really is a great idea. Everyone’s talking about eating local; everybody’s talking about community building; and everybody’s talking about the marketing challenges of the farmer.”

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