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Farm to hospital

Author: Laurie Wertich

Farm-fresh food

There is never a shortage of diet fads, but one recent trend is more tradition than fad—a return to our roots, if you will. It is called the “farm-to-table movement,” and it is based on the idea that fresh, local, seasonal food should come straight from the farm to your kitchen. Some people call it “farm-to-fork” or “locally sourced food”—but it does not matter what you call it, the underlying goal is the same: fresh, local food chock-full of nutrients.

At any other time in history, this may not have been a groundbreaking idea, but we live in an era of mass-produced, packaged foods that are trucked all over the country. That is wonderfully convenient but often not very nourishing. Even the “fresh” produce has often traveled an average of 1,500 miles before reaching your local grocery store. In fact, 39 percent of fruits and 12 percent of vegetables are imported from other countries.

The benefits of fresh

Why does it matter if food is grown locally or trucked in from far away? Well, to keep food from spoiling during transport, produce is often picked before it has fully ripened—meaning it has not had a chance to fully absorb nutrients from the soil. When fruits and vegetables “ripen” in transit, they lack the nutrients they would have if they had ripened on the vine. And even when food is picked at full ripeness, it loses nutrients during transit.

“For every hour that a fruit or vegetable has been harvested, it starts to deteriorate in its nutritional values,” explains Frank Caputo,Executive Chef at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Goodyear, Arizona. “When we go to the grocery store, we have no earthly idea how long ago that food was harvested or what types of chemicals were used in its growth.”

What’s more—fresh food simply tastes better. “Flavor really changes in veggies when they’ve been sitting on a truck for a few weeks, making their way from California to wherever you are,” explains Erin Barnett, Director of LocalHarvest, a nationwide directory of small farms, farmers’ markets and other local food sources.

Choosing fresh, local food also forces you to eat seasonally, the way Mother Nature intended. The bottom line: Fresh food tastes better, has a higher nutrient content and stays fresh longer.

Fresh food in the kitchen

Chef Caputo knows the value of fresh, local, organic food. “I got a taste of it while working as a chef in South Carolina,” he explains. “The farmers ran to me with exuberance about their food. It created this whole other drive that I get to put into what I do. I still draw on that experience.”

Indeed, Chef Caputo has made it his mission to use local, organic ingredients in the kitchen at CTCA and to provide patients with food that is delicious and nutritious. His commitment was so fierce, in fact, that he searched out Bob McClendon from McClendon’s Select organic farm in Peoria, Arizona, to help supply the kitchen at CTCA—and he would not take no for an answer when McClendon told him he was not taking new customers.

McClendon has honed his craft so well that his produce speaks for itself, and his small farm is running at full capacity all the time. But the idea of a hospital chef so determined to use his organic produce intrigued him. After meeting Chef Caputo and touring the facility, McClendon was sold. “Frank Caputo is obviously a chef who cares what he cooks with, or he never would have contacted us,” Mc Clendon says. “He could have just gone with commercial produce instead of going the extra mile to seek out really good, local, fresh stuff.”

From there a relationship was born. Though McClendon had three delivery trucks out on any given day, he made it a point to personally deliver his produce to CTCA. “His products started coming in the back door, and they were wonderful,” Chef Caputo says. “What they are able to produce—and the quality of what they produce—is just phenomenal.” Chef Caputo describes the endless array of fresh produce he procures from Mc- Clendon: four varieties of carrots, three types of apples, three types of beets, baby bok choy, dates, fennel, arugula, chard, romaine, kale, parsnips, radishes, tangelos, butternut squash and so much more. Chef Caputo worked his magic with the mouth-watering produce, creating a variety of fresh, delicious dishes for patients.

Happy farmer, happy chef, happy kitchen, happy patients—but Chef Caputo and McClendon did not stop there.

Farm to hospital

Each time he delivered to CTCA, McClendon remembered the seed of an idea that Chef Caputo planted during their first meeting, when he had described to McClendon his dream of having an organic farm on-site at CTCA. The hospital sits on about 200 acres of farmland, so the dream was not so far-fetched.

After about three months of deliveries, McClendon told Chef Caputo, “I think it’s time to talk about that farm.” The two started evaluating the property, gathering information and talking to the hospital board. They spent months planning, drawing and plotting—with overwhelming support from the hospital. In August 2012 construction of the farm began. It was a huge undertaking that required earth moving and the construction of a water distribution system before the frst seeds were planted in November 2012. Just a few months later, in January 2013, the 25-acre organic farm began supplying the CTCA kitchen with fresh produce.

“This is an absolutely historic happening,” McClendon says of the working farm supplying the hospital’s kitchen. “To our knowledge there is nothing in the world like it.”

And while Chef Caputo jokes that they call their enterprise “farm-to-hospital,” he is serious about the magnitude of the accomplishment and the benefit of the project: “The food is coming right out of the ground and onto our plates,” he says. “How much better can you get?”

McClendon believes that the organic farm at CTCA could be a model for other hospitals. “I think what we are doing is so important,” he says. “Getting hospitals to care about what they cook with and to use organic produce is well within reach. It costs more, but the benefits are immense.”

On the table

Only a few months after the initial seeds were planted on the CTCA farm, McClendon began harvesting Tuscan kale, Bambi lettuce, Focea lettuce, Bloomsdale spinach, Cherokee lettuce and Australe lettuce. “Those are the fastest-growing things,” explains Chef Caputo, so they were able to incorporate those into the CTCA menu immediately.

Plans for future harvests include dark beets, golden beets, two types of broccoli, four types of carrots, radishes and several other delicious vegetables. What’s more, they are growing calendula flowers. These edible flowers adorn the tables—and sometimes the plates—in the dining room.

With the abundance of fresh produce, Chef Caputo treats patients to healthy, delectable dishes like chilled carrot basil soup, harvest soup and kale salad. But he’s serving up a lot more than recipes. This supercharged chef is on a mission to bring fresh, nourishing food to the table to feed patients foods that taste good and promote health. As a small child, Chef Caputo spent time on his grandparents’ farm in southern Italy. “I helped them raise tomatoes, grapes, olives, potatoes, beans, cucumbers and different types of citrus,” he recalls. “That’s all I’ve ever really known—that you grow what you need for your own home.” Or hospital, as the case may be.

The CTCA farm has only added to Chef Caputo’s passion for finding just the right combination of foods for patients undergoing treatment. In fact, sometimes he goes to great lengths to customize meals for patients based on their sensitivities and treatment protocol.

“The best part is when a patient tells me that they gained 3 pounds and their treatment doesn’t have to stop,” Chef Caputo says. “That to me is amazing—to be able to provide that service. You just can’t put money on that. If that doesn’t make your heart explode and make you want to jump up and down and do something for somebody else, you’re in the wrong business.”

Clearly, Chef Caputo is in the right business: the farm-to-hospital business.

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