Nancy Gummer: Pioneer in sustainable food service
Mention the name Nancy Gummer in sustainable food circles and you're likely to get a nod of recognition. The avid bicyclist and North Dakota native has been getting national attention of late for her revamped food service operation at Good Shepherd Healthcare in Hermiston, Oregon.
Gummer transformed Good Shepherd's typical “heat and serve” food system into a “scratch cooking” operation using fresh and sustainably produced ingredients. Patients, visitors, and staff can now choose from a menu including wild Alaskan salmon, roasted sweet potatoes, bison burgers, local and organic produce, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats, and homemade cobblers for dessert.
Beyond receiving rave reviews from diners, Gummer's program has been featured in Time Magazine and a widely circulated Associated Press article. Most impressively, her model sustainable food operation is cutting food costs—something that may convince even the most skeptical to give sustainable food purchasing a try.
So how did Gummer, the Food and Nutrition Services Director for a 49-bed hospital in a small eastern Oregon town, become a nationally recognized guru of sustainable food service? It all started with her concern for the health of her patients and her belief in food as an important component of good health.
Gummer is a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator, and she teaches health and nutrition classes to diabetes patients at Good Shepherd. She advises her students to read food labels and to buy products only with ingredients that were easily recognized as food. Gummer advised against processed foods containing additives that could complicate a patient's illness.
While working with patients on diet and nutrition, Gummer saw that food was often a source of stress for people. “I saw a really dysfunctional relationship,” she says. “People were associating food with bad health and feeling guilty about what they ate.” Gummer wanted to transform that relationship. She recognized that the food service at Good Shepherd was in conflict with her own dietary advice and she knew that as a healthcare provider, Good Shepherd should be a model of healthy—and tasty—eating.
In 2004, Gummer began replacing some processed foods with fresh foods and buying organic when feasible. Her focus was on increasing those vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytochemicals present in greater quantities in fresh foods.
In 2005 Gummer connected with Health Care Without Harm, which had recently begun a sustainable foods initiative. The group helped Gummer draw the connection between sustainable food production and public health. That year, Gummer implemented a complete overhaul of Good Shepherd's system with the goal of serving meals made from scratch, using fresh, sustainably produced ingredients.
Sustainable food is not a black-and-white concept—Gummer's basic idea was to purchase foods with the least amount of chemical inputs (pesticides, hormones, and preservatives), produced in closest proximity to Hermiston (increasing freshness, supporting local farms, and decreasing fossil fuel use for transportation).
In a way, Gummer's food service operation is bringing her back to her roots. Raised on a diversified farm in North Dakota, Gummer saw first-hand how United States farm policies eroded small family farms. A diversified farm is one in which animals are raised along with a variety of vegetable crops in a self-contained system in which the animals' waste is used to fertilize the crops. As U.S. farm policy began to favor large operations that relied heavily on external inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the costs of running a diversified farm became greater than the returns, and Gummer's father had to give up farming as his livelihood. Years later, Gummer is reconnecting with family farms to source sustainable ingredients for Good Shepherd.
Sourcing did not come easily at first, but Gummer's dedication and persistence has paid off. She has found local growers to supply fresh vegetables and has developed relationships with local produce stands. In addition, Good Shepherd's food distributor, Food Services of America (FSA) in Spokane, Washington, has worked enthusiastically with Gummer to source local and organic foods. Still, Gummer knows that she must be persistent to get the products she wants, and often bypasses her assigned FSA rep to call the FSA buyers directly. She took this proactive approach, for example, when locating a source of milk free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), suspected of causing cancer and increasing antibiotic resistance in humans and banned in Canada and throughout Europe. “No one in my area was carrying rBGH-free milk,” she remembers, “but with the help of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, I was able to find a source and convince FSA to carry it.”
Building a sustainable food service has been an absorbing task, but Gummer hasn't shied away from other challenging adventures. In summer 2006, Gummer and her husband cycled 1,200 miles from Idaho to her hometown in North Dakota for her husband's high school reunion.
Revamping the food service at Good Shepherd has not been without its own uphill struggles, but the efforts have paid off. Gummer has tracked her costs and proven that by decreasing her inventory of processed foods, she has been able to decrease overall food expenses.
Gummer's willingness to forge new paths has paid off for her community and she is expanding her work into new arenas. As a recipient of a 2006 Public Health Genius Merit Award for her sustainable food work, Gummer is donating her cash prize to Camp Creative, a new Oregon summer camp for kids, emphasizing outdoor adventures. Gummer and her husband will lead a bike trip for the camp, and Gummer will assist in developing the camp's food service.
Finding this charity “was perfect,” she says. “What better way to instill the synonymy of health and sustainability than by starting with kids. Maybe that will translate to one less meal I'll serve at the hospital in years to come.”