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How OSF HealthCare added locally sourced oatmeal and granola to the menu

 Oats from Janie's Mill
Allison Walsh
Oats from Janie's Mill are part of a complete breakfast at OSF St Francis Medical Center in Peoria. The organic oats are milled in Ashkum, IL and are used to make fresh oatmeal and house-made granola.

Hospital food is not typically known for being local and organic, nor does it usually inspire the tastebuds. But a pilot project at OSF St. Francis Medical Center aims to change that, one breakfast meal at a time. Food Trek host Tory Dahlhoff has the story.

On the last episode of Food Trek, we visited Janie's Mill in Ashkum, Ill., a producer of local organic and regeneratively grown grain flowers. Today, we're going to follow some of those grains down the road to one of their many destinations at OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

Institutions such as hospitals and schools feed millions of people every single day. But these institutions are some of the most challenging places for small and mid-sized farmers to send their products. And that's because of many complicated reasons that we’ll cover on Food Trek down the road.

Basil's Harvest
Flaked oats from Janie's Mill are used in the house-made oatmeal available to patients at OSF St Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

But today, we just wanted to share a small but encouraging pilot project at OSF that's proving that, despite the challenges, small changes at the regional level can happen – showing that even hospital food can potentially be sourced from a local regenerative food system.

And that hospital food, believe it or not, can even be delicious.

Basil’s Harvest, a nonprofit founded about four years ago, envisions a regional food system that connects the dots between food, farm and health. Its executive director is Erin Meyer.

“Institutions are key to advancing and building a regional, regenerative food system. Hospitals are anchor institutions in the community,” Meyer said. “They’re primary employers. They're serving three meals a day, seven days a week. They are supporting community health. They're working and partnering and collaborating with agencies around the entire community. And so their work is integral to connecting to the regional food system and building that infrastructure.”

Basil’s Harvest’s farm-to-institution initiative looks to build a small regional value chain, Meyer said. It recently approached OSF HealthCare about a potential partnership.

“I thought it was important to see what I could do here to open the door to like one product that was grown locally,” said Golda Ewalt, director of food and nutrition services at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

One of the challenges of bringing locally grown foods to a hospital is volume.

OSF preparing regen oats.jpg
Golda Ewalt
An OSF St. Francis Medical Center food service employee prepares oatmeal for patient room service meals.

“We provide up to 1,600 or 1,700 meals a day. That's a lot of food,” Ewalt said. “So we would need a lot of volume. And that's why when we started the project, I thought oats would really be that one food that would work out. We serve oats every day to our patients. It’s very much a comfort food, and it's not a very expensive product.”

Basil’s Harvest needed to build a relationship with a mill that would provide those flaked oats. That’s where Janie’s Mill comes in.

Today, OSF typically orders about 200 pounds of oats from Janie’s at a time. And the owner of the mill, brings them right to OSF. The oats are great quality, Ewalt said.

“My goal from the get-go was to have the best bowl of oatmeal in Peoria,” Ewalt said. “I think that our oats we have here for our patients, it's really delicious. And I'm very proud of that.”

The patients have certainly noticed, said Bailey, a room service ambassador at OSF who helps patients order their meals and delivers them.

“Just like my grandpa usually makes it. It's definitely a step up from what we had before," she said.

Added Ewalt: “What I really like is that you can really taste the difference, the texture, the hardiness of the oats, compared to what we had. So it's great for our patients.”

Ewalt said it’s one step forward in supporting local farmers and the local economy.

“I always try to do what I can,” she said. “You can't do it all but try to make a difference where you are.”

Meyer, with Basil’s Harvest, said the food system that she envisions grows food for people and supports its communities with the foods we're growing – and supports the health of people.

“As we improve our regenerative practices and grow those regenerative practices, the soil health is going to improve,” she said. “With the soil health improving, it's our belief that the plant health will improve, yields will improve, and the end product will be healthier.”

In other words, soil health equals human health.

“What I hope and where we're working is that the healthcare community has to be involved and has to be talking about this to their patients, to their community, to the leaders of the community, because it's going to take all of us to change the system,” Meyer said.

Basil's Harvest
The farm-to-institution project leads, Erin Meyer and Golda Ewalt, meet with the owners and operators of Janie's Mill in Ashkum. (From left, Harold Wilken, Ewalt, Meyer, Unknown, and Jill Brockman-Cummings.)

This story was co-produced by Tory Dahlhoff and Allison Walsh.

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Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.