Health facilities could use more local food than schools

For several years, the people who prepare school lunches have been using more and more apples, carrots and other food grown by local producers.

But there is an even bigger market for local food in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals, a University of Minnesota extension study has concluded. Health institutions serve fewer people than schools but they serve them year round and they have demand for a broader set of products.

That’s the conclusion of a survey conducted by extension educator Ryan Pesch of health facilities and schools in a 15-county area of northwestern Minnesota.

In all, Pesch concluded, health and education institutions in that area could grow into a half-million-dollar annual market for food producers, based on what food officials told him of their potential appetite.

In the survey, those officials reported last year they bought a tiny fraction of that amount.

Healthcare institutions represent a larger potential market for purchase of locally grown and raised foods than educational institutions.

We conclude this because healthcare respondents report buying a broader mix of foods available in the region than educational respondents.

A majority of educational food service directors limit their food purchases to about nine products, while a majority of healthcare food service directors reported buying about 14 products. In addition, healthcare facilities are open year round, thus increasing the potential market for local foods.

But at the same time, Pesch was involved in a study by North Dakota State University that found reluctance among northwestern Minnesota growers to embrace the wholesale approach needed to take advantage of such markets. Most prefer the farmers markets and other direct sales to consumers that they practice now, that research showed.

So what is needed, Pesch concluded, is greater education of producers about the potential market size and then assistance via aggregators or middlemen to help them get beyond direct marketing.