When was the last time you got excited about going to the hospital … to eat the food?

For some, the thought of hospital food conjures up a plate of somewhat bland offerings. Don’t like the food? Just take a stroll to your nearest fast-food establishment, which is often right around the corner. But times are changing. It’s not just hipsters and chefs who are embracing local food. Our friends in the medical profession are buying into this concept, too, with doctors taking a more big-picture approach to health, including nutrition and exercise.

“The concept of food as medicine is finally gathering some momentum,” says Stacia Clinton, a registered dietitian with Healthcare Without Harm, an initiative that brings sustainable food options to the healthcare profession. “When healthcare understands that good food is medicine, too, clinicians will value it as part of their patient, community and environmental care.”

Major healthcare institutions such as Kaiser Permanente are piloting innovative programs in which physicians prescribe a mix of fresh fruits and vegetables to patients as part of a wellness plan. Neighborhood medical centers also are outfitted with the addition of farmers markets to help members gain easy access to nutritious options.

“For every dollar spent on local food, an additional dollar is generated in the surrounding community,” Clinton says. “Furthermore, farmers have a stable demand and revenue, and patients in food deserts have better access to healthy, fresh food.”

Adopting a “back to roots” approach in managing chronic disease is appetizing to healthcare providers that want to reign in escalating costs for preventable diseases. Then add in increasingly savvy consumers, who are up to speed on all things locavore and healthy. These dynamics are driving some hospitals to change.

“We have converted about 25 acres of vacant hospital land to an organic farm to supply our chefs and onsite farmers markets,” says Lisa McDowell, a registered dietitian on the front lines of modeling local food systems at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Watch a video of the farm in action:

Meals served to employees and patients at St. Joseph look enticing and packed with taste and nutrients. “Patients can shop for freshly harvested produce at our farmers market on discharge. The idea of local and nutritious food boosting health becomes more tangible to them this way,” says McDowell. She adds that St. Joseph’s employees beam with pride as they wheel patients through the farmers market. Those employees return to do their own shopping.

The hospital farm isn’t just about producing healthy food. It provides an intersection between farm and healthcare. A hoop house welcomes everyone from community volunteers to traumatic brain surgery patients, who weed, water, and harvest herb beds as part of their rehabilitation. After all, who doesn’t feel better after some green space therapy?

But there are plenty of institutional hurdles before more hospitals and healthcare providers will join the trend. These can range from a mere lack of knowledge about local food systems, the disconnect between food systems and health systems, or even economically-driven preferences for conventional food suppliers, which can limit opportunities to explore what mid- to small-scale producers could provide.

Clinton and McDowell encourage healthcare institutions to combine their resources to create the demand for healthy food. This in turn will steer producers to meet demand, and steer patients to make better choices.

“Having open-minded leadership was critical in the success of our pitch to start the farm and interact with local producers,” says McDowell. While not all institutions have land, some are ready to initiate dialogue and learn from the success stories.

Ultimately, it’s the patient or consumer who has the biggest voice, or fork, in steering healthcare in the right direction. What can you do? Completing those mundane satisfaction surveys is a start. Commend hospitals that are trying to support local and sustainable foods and educate yourself about what a local and sustainable food system means to you and your community. Ask your doctor or healthcare provider if they would be willing to be a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-up site or host to a market.

After all, we all use healthcare to get well, so why not help yourself, and health providers in general, by sharing the word about good, local food? Go on. Lead them up the garden path.

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Hospitals jump on the healthy food bandwagon
As more doctors use food as a medical tool, health care providers are making nutritious options more readily available — even farmers markets.