Oct. 6 2010 12:00 AM

Sparrow Hospital sneaks healthy food through the back door


On a recent Wednesday, shiny tomatoes and cheery flowers perked up a yellowish, institutional-looking hallway in the basement of Sparrow Hospital’s gigantic Lansing campus.

Misha Keenan, an O.R. nurse, stumbled upon a strategically placed stand of locally grown fruits and veggies from Lansing’s Urbandale Farms on her way to the cafeteria.

“Wow, I’m glad you’re here,” she said.

While Keenan fussed with the flowers, Jane Snyder, a pharmacist, fixated on heaps of Romano beans — green beans thick as Joe Pesci’s thumb.

Snyder already bought a quart of these monsters on her way to lunch. “I need another one,” she said. “I just happened to run into a couple guys, and they kept eating them.”

Raw? “That’s how we eat them at our house all the time,” Snyder said.

Unfortunately, this is not typical hospital staff behavior. The Urbandale stand was tucked into this obscure corner for a reason. Here nurses, aides and other staff members sneak out the back door for a smoke, grab a deep fried shrimp basket in the cafeteria, pick up a bag of chips from the vending machines or do other unhealthy things.

The modest stand was part of a multi-pronged initiative to bring healthier, local food into one of Lansing’s biggest institutions.

Next to the beans at the fruit stand were a pen and a dog-eared sheet of paper with hash marks for 32 paying customers, counting the double-dipping bean lady once. It’s a small start for a hospital that serves about 5,000 meals a day to patients, staff and visitors.

One day each month this summer, Sparrow hosted a satellite market from its east side neighbor, the Allen Street Farmer’s Market.

Linda Anderson of Urbandale Farms is pleased to have infiltrated the citadel. “We think it’s amazing that a hospital is sponsoring this kind of access to fresh produce,” she said.

Christa Byrd, Sparrow’s room service supervisor and unofficial local-food “cheerleader,” said that sometimes you have to be sneaky to get people to eat better. For March, National Nutrition Month, Sparrow switched up the menu at its prepared food stations.

“We didn’t call it ‘healthy,’ because we know there’s a stigma around that,” Byrd said, without a trace of irony.

“Instead, the menus used the words “local,” “fresh,” “anti-oxidants,” whatever we could call it other than ‘healthy’ or fat free.’”

Despite the savory dishes — fritatta with asparagus and cheese, honey orange roughy with side salad, linguini with grilled vegetables — and the cheap $4 price tag, sales at the food stations plummeted from 135 meals a day in February to 80 meals in March. They bounced back to 130 in April.

“We’re all health care workers, but we can’t sustain our sales on healthy items,” Wally Wozniak, director of Sparrow support services, said.

Byrd and her crew are trying various tactics. Last year, a contingent of Sparrow staff bought shares in Titus Farms, a community supported agriculture farm in Leslie.

“Within the hospital, we’re trying to change perceptions,” Byrd said. “Health care is not always the healthiest.”

Buying into a CSA and hosting a farmer’s market are two out of 14 points in the Healthy Foods in Health Care pledge, signed by Sparrow in 2008.

Being fast-food-free is another point in the pledge. Unlike many hospitals, Sparrow never succumbed to an unholy alliance with McDonald’s. In January 2009, Sparrow cut trans fats out of all hospital food, including vending machines.

Sparrow gets its milk from Prairie Farms, based in Carlinville, Ill. The milk doesn’t use artificial growth hormone and it qualifies as “local” by the standards of Health Care Without Harm.

The next challenge is biggest of all: working locally grown food into patient diets.

Sparrow hasn’t found a local distributor big enough and cheap enough to furnish the hospital with local produce, let alone hormone-free, free-range chicken and other meat, on the scale needed.

“It would be impossible for us to go to seven different farms and ask Bob and Bill and Joe what they have,” Wozniak said.

Byrd is working with MSU students to put together a local distribution co-op. Last week, Wozniak began huddling with MSU’s Product Center, an entrepreneurial think tank specializing in agriculture, with the same goal. “It’s a business that’s waiting to boom,” Byrd said.

“Everybody talks about it, everybody says they want it, but it’s easier to talk about it than to get something that works.”