Fifteen years ago, Kaiser Permanente launched its first farmers market, thanks to the innovative thinking of Preston Maring, MD.
In 2002, while walking through the lobby of the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, Preston Maring, MD, who served as the associate physician in chief for the medical center at the time, had an idea. “I looked at the items for sale in our lobby gift shop,” recalled Dr. Maring, who retired from The Permanente Medical Group in 2013, “and I thought, what if we offered something at the hospital that really could have a positive impact on the health of our members, physicians, and employees?”
That “something,” as it turned out, was a farmers market.
“I liked to go to farmers markets because of the obvious health benefits of eating fresh, locally sourced produce, but I always had to go someplace else to get to the market,” Dr. Maring said. “So, the idea was really pretty simple. Let’s see what would happen if we brought a farmers market to our hospital, where thousands of people gather every day.”
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Maring spoke with John Silveira, then the executive director of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, and he remembers the conversation well.
“Silvera said, ‘You know, your mission and my mission are the same. We’re both trying to improve the health of the community.’ And he said let’s talk some more.”
They did, and the following year, on May 16, 2003, the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center held “Friday Fresh,” the first farmers market at a Kaiser Permanente facility, and the first organic farmers market at any hospital in the United States.
A Fresh Idea Worth Spreading
“That first day was like a block party at our medical center,” Dr. Maring recalled. “The strawberry vendor alone did $2,000 worth of business in one day. It was a bit of a mob scene, and it was a lot of fun.”
“I was absolutely surprised and delighted by the success,” he continued. “In fact, there was a time when I would almost pinch myself every Friday morning when I got to work, because the tents were there and the farmers were setting up the market.”
Dr. Maring said there was early administrative support for the idea at the medical center, from both The Permanente Medical Group and Kaiser Foundation Hospital.
By the end of 2003, Kaiser Permanente had farmers markets at 2 medical centers, and by 2004 the number grew to 10. Today, there are 53 Kaiser Permanente-hosted farmers markets around the country, including 25 at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California. The idea has also spread to many other health care systems, including more than 40 markets at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.
To help assess the impact of the farmers markets on people’s eating habits, Dr. Maring said Kaiser Permanente conducted regular surveys of approximately 2,500 shoppers at the different Kaiser Permanente-hosted markets. “We found that of those who shopped at the farmers markets, about 70 percent said they ate more fruits and vegetables because the market was right there at the hospital — and 70 percent said they ate new and different kinds of fruits and vegetables.”
A Commitment to Help People Eat Healthier
The month following the first market, Dr. Maring started sharing his own recipes that featured ingredients sold at the farmers markets. His recipes — about 550 of them at last count — and those from other Kaiser Permanente contributors are now featured on the Kaiser Permanente Food for Health blog. “I started doing recipes under the premise that if I can cook a meal like this, anyone can,” he said. “I still believe that a sharp chef’s knife and a cutting board are 2 of the most important public health tools that exist.”
Today Dr. Maring continues his work to improve access to healthy food and has been working with the Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. “In 2016 I started talking with them about the possibility of bringing a farmers market to their church, because they have 700 to 800 parishioners there every Sunday morning who would benefit from having convenient access to affordable, fresh, healthy produce from California farmers.”
Working with Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit, Dr. Maring helped connect a mobile farmers market, operated by the nonprofit Fresh Approach, to East Oakland churches. Now that market goes to the Allen Temple Baptist Church every Sunday morning. “It’s starting to take off,” said Dr. Maring. “And it’s based on the same theory we had back in 2003: Let’s bring a farmers market to a place where people gather.”
Click on the play button below to hear more from Dr. Maring in a Kaiser Permanente podcast by Susannah Patton.