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Hospital puts produce at patients' fingertips

Farmers' market first in state at a veterans' hospital

At the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital on a recent Wednesday, doctors and patients shopped side-by-side for fresh-picked, California-grown produce.

A band of hospital employees played a mix of oldies and originals nearby. An information center offered recipes, and eight merchant booths displayed a variety of products, including orchids, olive oil, honey, beeswax candles, pluots, bell peppers and basil.

The occasion: The hospital's weekly farmers' market, which is the first in the state hosted by a VA hospital.

"Every week, it's different," said Camilla Coakley, coordinator of the VA's MOVE! weight-management program. "And it's just really fun. ... You're shopping right next to your doctor. That's kind of cool."

The weekly market started in May and will continue through October. It's run with the help of the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association (PCFMA).

The hospital initiated the project for its Healthy Veterans program, according to Greg Zeroun, market manager for the association.

"We worked with them a lot and finally came up with the plan and put it in motion," he said.

In response to Palo Alto's launch, the San Francisco VA is also talking to the farmers' market group about setting up one in the city, he said.

About 250 people visit the market each week, Zeroun said. Everyone is welcome, from doctors and patients to visitors and hospital employees.

The farmers' market was established by the Palo Alto Healthier U.S. Veterans Committee, which Coakley chairs and which also covers employee wellness.

"In health care, you need to really take care of yourself, in order to take care of other people," Coakley said. "Everything that we're doing is kind of all about veterans, but also taking care of employees."

"The farmers' market is a very visual example of that [goal," she said.

Besides offering the fruits and vegetables, the farmers' market offers recipes, flowers, olive oil, honey and beeswax products. Producers and visitors come from as far away as Fresno, Zeroun said.

Staff members are finding the market convenient.

"It's nice for people here at the hospital," said Kerri Childress, communications officer and congressional liaison for the VA hospital. "It's nice to be able to promote something that's healthy and also benefits the community."

The PCFMA is a nonprofit organization that aims to help farmers sell their products at certified farmers' markets. Growers pay a fee to the PCFMA, which organizes and promotes the markets, according to Zeroun.

Having a selection of fresh produce on sale each week is going to pay off, Coakley said.

"Research has shown that even a 10 percent decrease in your weight can very much benefit your body," she said.

"Things like this help people, so they don't come back time after time for things that could be helped by healthier lifestyles. It helps them find a balance in their lives so we have healthier, happier patients and employees," Coakley said.

"The hospital should be less of a place of disease and illness, and more of a place of wellness and restoration."

In addition to the farmers' market, the wellness committee is investigating yoga classes and other programs and clinics for both veterans and employees, according to Coakley. The Menlo Park VA hospital already offers yoga classes for veterans.

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