Illinois hospital serves ‘best bowl of oats’ while nourishing patients, soil & local economy

It’s a bright, sunny morning in Peoria, Ill. Autumn weather has settled in, and a sharp breeze off the Illinois River, along which the small city is set, calls for its residents to bundle up in warm layers. Golda Ewalt, director of food and nutrition services at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center (SFMC), is overseeing patient breakfast service.

The hospital’s newest and most popular option – oatmeal – is being plated and ushered up to patient rooms. Oatmeal might not sound like a flashy menu item, but this oatmeal has an exceptional taste and a story behind it.

“Will it play in Peoria?”

The old vaudeville phrase is a testament to the city’s history as a test market for musical acts about to launch across the country in the 1920s. Today, Peoria is becoming a test market for a revitalized notion of farming and food.

Situated in central Illinois, Peoria is located in the Upper Midwest foodshed, where large-scale corn and soy production for animal feed and food processing are common. A small but growing contingency of farmers and food processors, however, is coalescing around practices that protect the region’s soil and grow its economy.

These food system visionaries are betting their customers will appreciate their forward thinking, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities in our food system and resulted in food shortages across the country.

That’s where SFMC and Ewalt’s oatmeal come in. With a staff of 6,000 and beds for over 600 patients, SFMC recognizes it has a powerful opportunity to promote the health and resilience of its community through its purchasing and influence.

As a Practice Greenhealth partner, the OSF HealthCare system is committed to sustainability. And Ewalt, a registered dietitian, executive chef, and educator, is advancing OSF’s commitment through her department.

She connected with Basil’s Harvest, a nonprofit that works with food and farming professionals to investigate and develop new pathways for regeneratively grown foods. Regenerative agriculture is a set of practices which build healthy soil and sequester carbon in addition to other benefits.

“By creating a regional supply chain that connects regenerative farms, regional mills, and community-based food systems, hospitals support the creation of more resilient farms and stronger regional food economies, creating healthier communities and connecting hospital patients, staff, and visitors to the origins of their food.”– Chef Erin Meyer, Basil’s Harvest founder and executive director

Ewalt worked with Basil’s Harvest to identify a regeneratively produced item grown in the region that met five criteria: nutritionally dense, supportive of the local economy, regenerative for the environment, affordable for the hospital, and delicious.

Oats fit the bill.

Basil’s Harvest discovered a good source for oats – Doubting Thomas Farms, a sixth-generation certified organic family farm in Moorhead, Minn. Noreen and Lee Thomas’ farm uses regenerative methods that build soils in the Upper Midwest and result in a healthy product.

Once the oats are harvested, they’re delivered to Janie’s Mill, a family operation in Ashkum, Ill. producing a variety of delicious grains and stone-milled flours. Mill manager Jill Brockman-Cummings uses artisanal methods to roast and flake the oat groats, helping to preserve nutrient density, taste, and shelf stability.

This care and craftsmanship results in a product that delights Ewalt and the SFMC community. SFMC uses it to prepare their popular warm, nutty oatmeal as well as sweet, crunchy granola.

The hospital provides information with each bowl of oatmeal, and Ewalt hopes this new dish will bring awareness of local food and farm businesses.

“We plan to serve the best bowl of oats in Peoria,” says Ewalt. “Besides serving oatmeal for breakfast, we envision oats being used in catering and community education to encourage support for local farms and mills at the community level.”

Health Care Without Harm partnered with Basil’s Harvest and SFMC to build a model farm-to-hospital program that demonstrates the many benefits of a successful procurement relationship between a hospital and farms practicing regenerative agriculture in order to achieve climate and health goals.

Now that Doubting Thomas Farms oats are providing a delicious and healthy comfort food to patients at SFMC, OSF’s sustainability committee sees an opportunity for sourcing regenerative oats to the remaining 14 hospitals within the OSF HealthCare system. And Basil’s Harvest looks toward expanding the pilot to more hospitals in the Upper Midwest, paving a path to wider adoption of regional procurement.

Obtaining support from hospital administrators is critical to implementing such changes.

“We’re in the era of cost cutting,” Ewalt explains. “So you have to believe in the philosophy and support it, even if it costs more money.”

Learn more about resilience in health care.

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Health Care Without Harm

Health Care Without Harm

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Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.