Published on January 20, 2014

St. Vincent's Clay County, other hospitals 'buy local'

By Teresa Stepzinski, The Florida Times-Union

Executive chef Lisa Leonardi stir-fries vegetable that are fresh, organic and locally grown in the kitchen at St. Vincent's Clay County, which emphasizes using locally grown, organic produce.  WILL DICKEY/The Times-Union

WILL DICKEY/The Times-Union
Executive chef Lisa Leonardi stir-fries vegetable that are fresh, organic and locally grown in the kitchen at St. Vincent's Clay County, which emphasizes using locally grown, organic produce.
A vegetable stir fry was made with fresh locally grown organic vegetables, prepared by executive chef Lisa Leonardi at St. Vincent's Clay County hospital.  WILL DICKEY/The Times-Union
WILL DICKEY/The Times-Union
A vegetable stir fry was made with fresh locally grown organic vegetables, prepared by executive chef Lisa Leonardi at St. Vincent's Clay County hospital.

MIDDLEBURG | Hospitals are known for health care, not haute cuisine. St. Vincent’s Clay County, however, is raising the standard for the meals it serves to patients, staff and visitors.

The 64-bed hospital offers organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as all-natural meat, fish and poultry. Created from recipes developed by chef Lisa Leonardi the meals are prepared daily from scratch in the hospital’s kitchen. They showcase fresh, seasonal ingredients, flavor and nutrition. Dishes made from locally wild-caught fish and seafood, eggs from free-range chickens, and hormone-free dairy are featured in a menu that focuses on nutrient-rich “super foods” shown to help prevent disease.

“Hospitals need to lead our community in good health,” said Blain Claypool, president of St. Vincent’s Clay County. “We’re not just here to treat people who are sick. We are a community partner that sets the bar for healthy living, and we need to lead the way.”

The healthy fare also is good for the local economy.

Serving organic food is part of the hospital’s buy-local emphasis. Much of its $500,000 annual food budget will be spent on organic and all-natural non-organic fruits and vegetables grown in Clay and neighboring counties as well as other parts of Florida or South Georgia depending on the season, Claypool said.

“Buy local, be local,” Claypool said.

Although St. Vincent’s Clay is the only one focusing on organic food, its parent ministry, St. Vincent’s HealthCare, and other Northeast Florida health systems pump millions of dollars into the region’s economy annually. They employ area residents and buy supplies, equipment and services.

“They definitely are an economic mainstay. … Just in Clay County, the health-care industry is the second largest industry in terms of employees. The sector itself is huge,” said Bill Garrison, county Economic Development Council executive director.

“St. Vincent’s Clay is a classic example of new growth happening around that hospital from other service providers, other doctors,” Garrison said, noting that other health providers including his own physician have relocated to be closer to the hospital in Middleburg.

“It’s a huge impact and you can hardly understate it,” Garrison said.

The economic ripple effect of Northeast Florida’s hospitals — Baptist Health, St. Vincent’s HealthCare, UF Health Jacksonville and Orange Park Medical Center — extends throughout the region.

Garrison said St. Vincent’s, Baptist Health and Orange Park Medical Center are linchpins in Clay’s economy. Combined, they employ 3,487 residents, second only to the Clay County school district, which has 4,663 employees. Major retailers employ 3,406 people for third place, he said.

The council’s major initiative is attracting more health care, utility and manufacturing jobs, which pay higher wages, Garrison said.

Hospitals nationwide create more than $2 trillion annually in economic activity. Spending a combined $750 billion on goods and services, the nation’s hospitals employ nearly 5.5 million people while also supporting 10 million more jobs elsewhere in the economy, according to the American Hospital Association.

Every $1 spent by a hospital on goods and services supports about $2.30 of additional business activity, hospital association data show.

Northeast Florida hospitals are diverse in their economic impact.

St. Vincent’s Clay gets its organic fruits and vegetables from Sunrise Produce Jacksonville, whose fresh natural produce is grown by farmers throughout Florida and South Georgia. The company also provides fresh, but non-organic, produce to St. Vincent’s Riverside and Southside, all the Baptist Health medical centers and both UF Health Jacksonville and UF Health Gainesville, company sales manager Abbey Deckman said.

“Monthly, we average about 15 percent of our business in hospitals. It’s a big chunk of our business,” said Deckman, adding that Sunrise’s other major customers include the universities, all Duval County schools and food service companies supplying cafeterias at area companies.

Baptist Health, with more than 9,400 caregivers, is the largest private employer in Northeast Florida. It spent more than $67.2 million with Northeast Florida companies in the 2012-13 fiscal year for food, equipment and medical supplies, said Marianne Hillegass, senior vice president and chief resource officer for Baptist Health.

The health system spent more than $130 million in charity and uncompensated medical care to residents. It also provided more than $1.5 million in grants, donations and sponsorships in the community during 2012-13, said Lynn Sherman, Baptist director of community health.

Baptist Health uses local vendors for much of the food offered in the cafeterias of its Duval and Nassau County medical centers. It buys all of its fresh produce locally, and the majority of its bread comes from a Jacksonville-based company, said David Coram, health system director of food and nutrition.

St. Vincent’s HealthCare, with 4,800 employees in Northeast Florida, spent $145 million with vendors last year, but the amount with local vendors wasn’t available. The health system spent nearly $164 million in charity and uncompensated care in the region last year, spokeswoman Ilyssa Trussel said.

Most of the money UF Health Jacksonville spends locally includes “services such as maintenance, construction, facilities, contracts with other health providers.” Morrison’s, which runs the hospital’s food service department, “spends about $500,000 annually on local seafood and produce representing about 13 percent of their spending.” The other items are handled through national vendor contracts, said Daniel Leveton, UF Health Jacksonville spokesman.

Orange Park Medical Center, with 1,637 employees, spent about $21.3 million with local vendors of all types last year. It did $30 million of charity and uncompensated medical care and spent $140,000 in donations and sponsorships. It also paid $6.5 million in local taxes, spokesman David Goldberg said.

Deckman said that while not all hospitals emphasize organic food, the health-care industry in general has been moving away from frozen and processed foods in recent years.

“Fresh is always better. And a lot of them have started going in that direction where everything is fresh, not frozen,” Deckman said.

Exemplifying that trend, St. Vincent Clay serves about 150 to 170 meals a day to patients and about another 175 meals daily to staff and visitors. Claypool said organic is the priority, but so is non-organic natural food.

“It’s a priority of ours to make sure we know where we’re buying from and that we can support local farmers,” said Claypool, who came up with the organic initiative. “Some of the challenges that we’ve had is finding a steady enough stream in Northeast Florida to support us to go 100 percent organic. It’s still our goal. We want to reach a point that we’re 100 percent and local. ”

Organic produce must be grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation.

To be organic, animals producing meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products don’t take antibiotics or growth hormones. Natural foods can’t contain any artificial ingredients or chemical preservatives, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The percentage of organic food on the St. Vincent’s Clay’s menu depends on what’s in season. When St. Vincent’s Clay opened Oct. 1, about 90 percent of its fruits and vegetables were organic. It was about 50 percent organic last month, Claypool said.

Claypool said as the hospital works to expand its organic and natural foods menu with local grower, it’s also looking for other ways to invest in the community.

“We want to improve the overall health outcomes of our community. … This is where we live. As we succeed, the community succeeds,” Claypool said.

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