“Nothing is more important to people’s health than what they eat everyday,” says Dr. Preston Maring, a physician for 34 years and the creator of the first Kaiser Permanente hospital farmers market. By developing a farmers market at his hospital and inspiring the creation of 25 others in just two years, Dr. Maring is helping hospitals around the country illustrate the connection between food, diet, and health.

Six years ago Dr. Maring noticed vendors selling jewelry and handbags in the lobby of the Oakland, CA hospital where he worked. As a longtime farmers market shopper, he wondered if he could develop a market at his hospital that would serve large groups of people and support the hospital’s mission. To get started he brought the idea of a farmers market to the CEO and hospital operators. Through them he connected with John Silviera at the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association (PCFMA) who immediately loved the idea.

In May 2003, with a contract from the PCFMA, the first Kaiser Permanente market opened between the parking lot and the main entrance to Dr. Maring’s Oakland hospital. Functioning as a subtle form of preventative medicine, the eight to nine vendors at the market provided a place for hospital visitors, patients, and employees to buy fresh produce, shop for food at a convenient location, and enjoy a work environment that encourages them to breathe fresh air as they buy locally grown strawberries, apricots, or peaches outside the hospital.

The first day felt like a block party and was an immediate success – strawberry vendors alone made over $2000. Quickly Dr. Maring sent emails and called peers at other Kaiser Hospitals. By the spring of 2004 six new farmers markets were providing fresh food at different hospital locations. The farmer-to-hospital momentum continued building and by the summer of 2005, 25 markets existed in five states, ranging from Georgia to Colorado to Hawaii.

The markets are geographically diverse and unique in that each hospital works with local vendors and farmers to manage their own market. What connects them are their three shared guiding principles: first, the markets must provide certified organic food; second, the food should not need refrigeration, meaning no fish, chicken, meat, or dairy; third, the markets must serve as healthy complements to the existing in-hospital cafeteria food, and not as competitive alternatives.

As a large company, Dr. Maring believes Kaiser can help build demand for fresh healthy food while it supports local farmers through its farmers market programs. Hospitals are where people go to regain their health, and Dr. Maring says there is “something to be said for hospital leadership supporting these markets” – markets that can help patients, visitors, and employees both stay healthy and get better.

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