Kaiser's farmers' markets: parsley and plums with your primary care

The Johnny Appleseed of Kaiser Permanente explains why an electric knife sharpener might be the best health care tool around.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive on

For many years growing up in Maryland, my family had health insurance through Kaiser Permanente. My most vivid memory of going to the doctor was nearly fainting by the elevator after having blood taken. But perhaps if I had walked out of there with some fresh kale and cucumbers, my recollection would have been more pleasant. Today, that scenario’s not so far-fetched.

Dr. Preston Maring, associate physician-in-chief at the Kaiser Permanente East Bay Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., is the epicurean MD behind Kaiser’s farmers’ markets. Thanks to him, there are now locations at medical complexes in California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Georgia and Maryland. I talked to him about the markets last week.

In 2003 you started the Friday Fresh Farmers’ Market at Oakland’s Kaiser Permanente. How did you get the idea to do this?

I’ve been at my hospital for 38 and a half years as a clinician and administrator, and I’m always looking for things to do that are good for our staff and for our patients. I started wondering how a farmers’ market would do outside a hospital. Many of our medical centers have enough physicians, nurses and lab techs who come to work in a single location that the market is possible. Our center has more than 600 physicians and thousands of total staff. The market’s opening day was like a block party.

I was thinking patients would shop there, but I guess it’s also a great resource for staff.

We surveyed a dozen markets. About 50 percent of the shoppers were staff, and 50 percent were patients, patient visitors or people from surrounding neighborhoods. The thing I like is that they are not really destination markets like a weekend community market. It’s a place people are coming already. The title I’ve used is Produce to the People.

Is the idea that as you increase trips to the farmers’ market you decrease trips to the doctor’s office and hospital?

That’s the idea. It’s difficult to measure the real impact of a farmers’ market. What people buy at a market on one day at a hospital doesn’t tell me what they are buying the rest of the week. But I have many anecdotal stories that having the markets is doing good. One of my patients lost 90 pounds. I gave her a “prescription” for arugula salad. A hospital engineer has dropped 60 pounds since the market came. He said his engineer’s clothes are too big for him now. Kaiser is built on prevention. I hope that by having the market and having Kaiser celebrate the importance of good food and good health, we’re getting through to young, healthy people to start eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and less food with O’s in it—Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos.

Do you also offer instruction on how to shop at a farmers’ market and what to do with the produce?

Our San Jose location partnered with the organization that runs about 18 of our markets—the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association. They outfitted a truck with a cooking demo set-up, and that program is called Cookin’ the Market. In 2008 they did 156 community cooking demos—community fairs and through the WIC program--so women could learn to cook things like Brussels sprouts with garlic and lemon zest.

I’ve started to do my own cooking demos for various groups. I keep it easy—I just go out and show people how to dice an onion, how to make salsa, how to make vinaigrette. I encourage people to get a good sharp knife and a good cutting board, and that can change your life. Maybe the best health care tool around might be an electric knife sharpener.

How many markets do you have today?

We have 37 markets, but they vary in size and personality. Some are in courtyards. My hospital is kind of an older facility, and our farmers’ market is year-round on the sidewalk. It’s also organic. We had a bee vendor move her bees to a location where they would only fly to flowers with no pesticides, so she could sell her honey at our organic market. We have another center in Watts, started by the woman who runs Kaiser’s Watts Counseling and Learning Center, which is a resource for anyone in the community. So now people in Watts who may not have a grocery store have fresh fruits and vegetables every Saturday. I have other places call and ask what I think about a location—like Vanderbilt University [Medical Center Plaza], which has 20,000 people and opened their market a year ago. Location is critical. If you could put a market right in front of where people walk anyway, it’s hard to pass up a fresh peach in the middle of July.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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