A University Hospitals sustainability specialist talks local food

Cleveland has one of the top hospital systems in the country, and lately the city has gained a reputation for having a stellar food scene, too. But what about the food in our hospitals? Hospital food does not have a great image, but the University Hospital System is making some headway to change that. I talked to Sustainability Specialist Matthew Pietro at Greening UH about his efforts to incorporate local and sustainable food into his institution. Short answer: “We’re working on it!”

Greening UH is the University Hospital’s overarching sustainability program. University Hospitals have set a goal in line with the Healthier Hospitals Initiative to increase their local sourcing by five percent each year. The program has been around for six years now, and Matthew has worked there for five. “We are intentionally small as an office,” he said. “We work to support projects and programs in an effort to embed principles of sustainability into daily operations.”

Matthew is intimately connected to the local food scene. Before working at Greening UH, he and a friend received a grant to start a small farm that operated as part of the Ohio City Farm for five years. Turning that passion into action at an organization as huge as UH is another matter, though. Matthew explained, “there is a really strong local food movement in Cleveland, but I’ve learned in a large institution with nutrition-service contracts and obligations, it is difficult to pick and choose who we buy food from.”

Currently, UH sources from over a dozen local farms like the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative and Green City Growers. In addition to sourcing local food to serve at the hospitals, UH has two fully established farmers markets that are available for patients, employees, and the surrounding communities: the North Union Market at Case Medical Center and UH Parma Medical Center. Many other hospitals also have farm stands and CSA programs for employees.

While the hospitals do not yet source very much local meat, cutting down on meat was one of Greening UH’s major projects for 2014 and 2015. Their goal was to buy more antibiotic-free meat and source less meat in general.

It seems fair to say that hospital food is on the rise in Cleveland. And UH’s commitment to local food is not confined to the upper-middle-class foodie movement that can afford it. Take Healthy Harvest, a program for low-income residents of the community. Piloted at UH Case Medical Center, it provides a sampling of local food for about thirty weeks, including information on how to cook the produce as well as local farmer’s markets that accept financial assistance programs. The program is set up within UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and provides a sampling of three produce items each week at a subsidized cost. “I believe they get about eight dollars’ worth of produce for two dollars,” Matthew said proudly. “We are very happy with the program.”