April 5, 2011

Celebrated farmer urges Permanente doctors to further healthy food traditions

Joel Salatin, celebrity farmer. Photo by Rachel Salatin.

When I heard that famed farmer Joel Salatin had come to Oakland to speak with Kaiser Permanente doctors, I felt like this event almost constituted a brush with celebrity. I wrote my senior thesis on food movements in the Bay Area, and my longtime interest in food politics had introduced me to Salatin and his work to bring sustainable food to America’s tables.** While some may be puzzled at the idea of a “famous farmer,” I leapt at the chance to write about a veritable hero of the food politics world, and I was anxious to learn more about where KP doctors and Salatin crossed paths.

Thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s discussion of Salatin in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and his appearance in the 2008 popular documentary "Food Inc.," Salatin has become a renowned advocate of sustainable food and farming, and somewhat of an icon in the healthy food movement.

During his visit, Salatin, who raises beef, pork, and poultry at his Virginia family farm, Polyface Inc., spoke of the challenges small farmers face at the intersection of healthy food and politics. Locally grown food is often healthier and more sustainable, but small farmers struggle when selling their products to large institutions, preventing the large-scale adoption of a local food system.

Salatin started his visit with a stop at the birthplace of local food sales — the farmers market. Preston Maring, MD, a KP physician in Oakland, Calif., founded the first Kaiser Permanente farmers market at the Oakland Medical Center in 2003, and today there are more than 35 KP farmers markets in several regions, demonstrating Kaiser Permanente’s commitment to total health through nutrition.

After a visit to the market, Salatin spoke to a group of KP physicians on the topic of “Local Food to the Rescue.” His message served to both validate the work Kaiser Permanente farmers markets and hospital cafeterias are already doing, and to inspire Kaiser Permanente officials to supply hospitals with even more locally sourced food.

History of healthy eating

Kaiser urged wartime shipyard workers to eat healthy, even grow their own vegetables, as this 2009 poster illustrates.
Kaiser urged wartime shipyard workers to eat healthy, even grow their own vegetables, as this 2009 poster illustrates. Design by Pam Zachary, KP Multimedia Department.

Kaiser Permanente has long focused on the link between healthy eating and prevention. Before Kaiser Permanente was synonymous with health care, war workers flocked from all parts of the U.S. to Richmond and Oakland, Calif., where they helped to build ships in the Kaiser Shipyards during WWII. Henry Kaiser quickly realized that to build ships at a fast pace his workers had to be healthy and strong, and that meant they needed to eat nutritious foods. He saw that well-nourished workers translated into less absenteeism, more productivity, and happier employees.

In a 1943 memo written by Cecil Cutting, MD, a founding Permanente physician, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of nutrition. With healthier meals, Cutting hoped to “bring about greater vitality, greater psychological effect and consequently increased productivity.”

In “Ships for Victory,” author and historian Frederic Lane discusses the Maritime Commission’s initiative to improve in-plant feeding at America’s shipyards in 1943. Many shipyards received additional funds to provide more hot meals and make sure workers had access to healthy food in the workplace. In the Kaiser Shipyards on the West Coast the emphasis on good nutrition even spilled over into the Kaiser-run child care centers where children were fed three square meals, and mothers could pick up prepared meals when they collected their children at the end of the work day.

After the war when Kaiser established a health plan open to the public, nutrition and prevention were among the core principles. “Kaiser health planners supported concepts of holistic preventive care,” writes Rickey Hendricks in “A Model of National Health Care: The History of Kaiser Permanente.”

A focus on healthy food comes to Kaiser Permanente hospitals

Nutrition education was big in the WWII Kaiser shipyards, as highlighted in this poster created in 2009.
Nutrition education was big in the WWII Kaiser shipyards, as highlighted in this poster created in 2009. Design by Pam Zachary, KP Multimedia Department.

A 1972 article from the publication “Institutions/Volume Feeding” highlights Kaiser Permanente hospitals’ progressive commitment to providing patient meals with higher nutrition at a lower cost.; Hospital dieticians were consulted so that every meal had optimal nutrition and calorie content for a patient’s needs. Kaiser Permanente even began to serve meals with an accompanying pamphlet that explained the nutrition information of the meal so that patients could “begin to learn more about the foods that they eat” while in the hospital.

Quality nutrition was at the center of meal planning, and administration felt that when it came to cost “it was of the utmost importance to separate patient feeding from other food-service activities necessary in a hospital.” While the development of an efficient system came about slowly, Kaiser Permanente never strayed from a focus on the healing power of healthy meals.

Oakland: an epicenter of progressive food movements

In my thesis research on the bay area, I was surprised to find that the city of Oakland has also long been a center of progressive food movements. In the 1970s, the Black Panther Party provided a free breakfast program and other “people’s community survival programs” in Oakland, serving residents hot meals with a side of political activism.

The effort of the Black Panther Party members to address hunger in their community was seen as revolutionary and empowering. Soup kitchens and free breakfast programs drew attention to the fact that the local food system was not currently meeting the needs of the West Oakland community. In “A Panther is a Black Cat,” (1971) author Reginald Majors explains that rather than wait on city officials, residents intended to subvert the power dynamic of the community by taking matters in to their own hands.

The free breakfast program for school children went hand in hand with revolutionary ideals and food became an expression of political power. Majors explains, “The Panthers would be betraying their own beliefs by not pushing a little political orientation along with the grits, bacon, and eggs” they dispensed each morning.

Today there are several West Oakland farmers markets in action that echo these themes of racial empowerment. My thesis focused on several of these markets, like “Mo Better Foods” and “Phat Beets Produce,” which provide both locally grown food and social empowerment within a community many residents believe to be historically disenfranchised.

Kaiser Permanente’s continued progress and inspiration

Given Kaiser Permanente’s nutritional history coupled with Oakland’s revolutionary food movement past, Joel Salatin could not have delivered his somewhat radical message to a better group in a better location. Kaiser Permanente initially focused on healthy food in hospitals, and then on bringing local, sustainable food to the community through the Kaiser Permanente farmers markets in Oakland.

What follows logically is a bridging of those two ideals: bring even more local and sustainable food in to hospital meals. Kaiser Permanente hospitals already bring in over 600 pounds per week of sustainably grown vegetables on patient entrée plates at 21 Northern California Kaiser Permanente Hospitals, and Salatin hopes his talk will encourage them to expand that trend and do even more. When he visited Oakland in January, Salatin said:

“The idea of bringing local food right into the façade of a hospital — there couldn’t be a better match. . . If anyone should lead the way in bringing this nutrient-dense food, food that heals people, heals the soil, heals communities, it should be the hospital. Every sphere of its existence should be healing.”

* Grace Emery is an intern with Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources. She is a graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, and is pursuing a career in public health.

**Grace Emery, “‘Feeding Ourselves’: Power and Participation in West Oakland Food Movements.” Senior Political Science thesis for Whitman College. Winner of the 2010 Whitman College Robert Fluno Award for Best Politics Thesis.