A hospital replacing its canned and frozen fruits and vegetables with fresh produce from nearby farms? It might sound like a post-anesthesia dream, but it is happening at some San Francisco Bay Area hospitals, say UC Davis researchers.

The researchers recently studied farm-to-hospital initiatives in the Bay Area, and they found a growing movement to put locally produced food on patient trays and cafeteria menus. They say that buying from local farmers and ranchers is part of a trend toward better quality and flavor in hospital meals, both to satisfy consumer demand and to address concerns about dietary contributions to chronic disease.

"Just replacing food-service cans with locally grown vegetables won't curb high rates of obesity and heart disease, but it may encourage patients and cafe customers to increase their daily intake of vegetables," said study co-author Gail Feenstra. "And if there's one piece of firm advice from nutritionists, it's to eat more fruits and vegetables."

Feenstra is food systems analyst for the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI) and the statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). Her study co-author is Elizabeth Sachs, a graduate student in international agricultural development.

One example of a "farm-to-hospital" initiative is the John Muir Health System facilities in the East Bay, where executive chef Alison Negrin (formerly chef at some of the Bay Area's best known restaurants, including Chez Panisse) has replaced all frozen vegetables with fresh produce, most of which is grown within 150 miles of the hospital.

Now John Muir patient lunch trays feature a local, seasonal fruit of the day. John Muir cafes offer bowls of citrus fruits from Capay Valley orchards and steam trays of fresh broccoli and cauliflower grown in Monterey County, local mixed lettuces in the salad bars and grass-fed beef from area ranches in the hamburgers.

Hospitals have the buying power to make a big difference in local food networks, Feenstra said. "They buy more than $12 billion of food every year."

The new report, "Emerging Local Food Purchasing Initiatives in Northern California Hospitals," is available online at http://sarep.ucdavis.edu/cdpp/fti/.