Why a Farmers Market Belongs in the Lobby of Your Office Building

Why a Farmers Market Belongs in the Lobby of Your Office Building

Beth Shafran-Mukai struggled with her weight for most of her life. By the time she reached her mid 30s, she weighed 245 pounds and had developed Type 2 diabetes. When she was 40, she started taking insulin every day and eventually started using an insulin pump to manage her condition.

Today, Shafran-Mukai, a colleague of mine at Kaiser Permanente, no longer needs insulin or any other medication for diabetes. Over the last three years, she has lost 120 pounds by changing her diet to include more fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly. Shafran-Mukai’s story shows that making healthy choices available to employees in all environments -- whether they are at home or at the office -- can make a big difference in supporting healthier lifestyles and individuals.

Every week, Shafran-Mukai stocks up on produce at a farmers market hosted by Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Clara Medical Center, where she leads labor relations in the human resources department. “At a certain point, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired all of the time,” she told me recently.

No doubt, Shafran-Mukai tapped into a well of inner strength to lose weight and improve her health. But her story also shows the importance of promoting employee health by putting fresh fruits and vegetables right in front of people, and making it easier for them to make the right choices. When I started an all-organic farmers market at my hospital in 2003, I had no idea these markets could have such an important impact on the health of my colleagues. We now have more than 35 farmers markets at facilities and hospitals across the country.

There’s nothing surprising about a health care organization showing concern for the health of employees and patients. But this focus on healthy food can go far beyond the hospital setting. Other companies -- from high tech to retail and banking -- can also integrate healthier food into cafeterias and vending machines. They can start their own farmers markets or deliver “farm boxes” to employees. Improving food on any corporate campus will lead to healthier, more loyal and more productive employees.

Over my more than 39 years practicing medicine at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California, it has become increasingly clear that what people eat is crucial to their personal health. And when about 35 percent by weight of all the food eaten in the United States is either fast food or pizza, it makes sense for companies to focus attention where it’s possible to make a big difference for their employees.

On October 16, Kaiser Permanente will host a “Food for Health Forum” in San Francisco bringing together physicians, health care leaders and sustainable food experts from around the country to galvanize a healthy food movement within health care. Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," and Mollie Katzen, author of "Moosewood Cookbook," are among the speakers at the invitation-only event. Healthcare needs to set a good example for other industries.

Only about 15-20 percent of the population in the United States eats five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And this is not even close to the recommended 9-13 servings. But farmers markets can help change that.

In a recent patron survey of our 35 markets we found that 76 percent of shoppers reported that they were eating more fruits and vegetables because of the access to the markets and 71 percent were eating more different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Having the choice of organically grown produce at our markets also gives us the opportunity to buy food that is not only good for us and our kids, but also good for the environment and the people who grow it for us. 

To maintain this focus on the best option -- food sourced locally when possible and grown organically -- we are working to bring more sustainably produced foods into the inpatient setting and our cafeterias. One program, which we call “Healthy Picks,” encourages whole grains, lowfat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, as well as products made with trans fat-free oils. The program has been successful in helping our patients and staff make healthier food and beverage choices through vending and cafeteria services in 34 medical centers in California, Hawaii and Oregon. We’re also offering delivery of produce “farm boxes” to employees in many locations.

But good food at work is only part of the picture. To help people get started in their own kitchens, I just finished touring 25 of our hospitals to promote sustainably produced foods and demonstrate basic food preparation skills. I am convinced that a sharp chef’s knife, two cutting boards and a salad spinner are some of the best “employee wellness” tools around. Learning to macerate garlic, dice an onion and slice multiple cherry tomatoes at once can literally change your employees’ lives.

Beth Shafran-Mukai, for one, was so inspired by our farmers markets, that she planted a vegetable garden in her back yard. This past Sunday, she told me, she prepared dinner by roasting butternut squash, a variety of peppers and tomatoes from her most recent harvest. Now that sounds like a recipe for good health.

Dr. Preston Maring is associate physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center.

Images courtesy of Kaiser Permanente.