The senior living industry is increasingly looking to local farms to help feed residents, and while the practice isn’t always cheaper, many providers agree it is the wave of the future.
Chicago-based senior living provider Pathway to Living launched a farm-to-table dining program in May to bring fresh produce to its residents. Similarly, Vero Beach, Florida-based Harbor Retirement Associates (HRA) in July announced a new “farm-to-fork” menu refresh to incorporate more local, seasonal fruits and veggies into its residents’ diets.
Both providers worked with Produce Alliance, a produce management, procurement and consulting company headquartered in Chicago that helps businesses like hotels, restaurants and senior living communities buy food from local growers. Today, Produce Alliance works with 68 senior living providers and 776 senior housing communities throughout the country, including such major players as Sunrise Senior Living, Life Care Services (LCS) and Capital Senior Living (NYSE: CSU).
With so many baby boomers poised to reach retirement age in the next decade, senior living is expected to be a large part of Produce Alliance’s business, according to Max Yaffe, the company’s business development director.
“These are places where people are coming in and expecting a very high-end experience … so, we think this is going to be one of our largest areas of growth,” Yaffe told Senior Housing News. “This is going to be one of our largest driving forces from a profitability standpoint.”
One reason Produce Alliance seems to have growing appeal among senior living providers is its ability to do small orders that other food distributors might deem too insignificant. That’s important because it means a community’s kitchen staff can order only as much local produce as they need at a time. It also means that Produce Alliance can serve a wide range of providers, from those that have just one community to others that have hundreds.
“What we offer is the customization and flexibility for a lot of these [senior living] chefs to create new menus and add new items they wouldn’t have been able to add before,” Yaffe explained.
And, from an efficiency standpoint, using a produce management firm such as Produce Alliance to find and deliver custom-packaged fruits and vegetables from quality local farms is simply easier than doing it yourself.
“A lot of these guys are very busy,” Yaffe said. “They don’t have the time to sit down and deal with all this day-to-day stuff, and that’s why they’d want to work with somebody like us.”
Trip to the farm
Under Pathway to Living’s farm-to-table program—which features a new local crop each month of the year—Pathway’s chefs have introduced into residents’ diets microgreens, cherry tomatoes, sweet corn and spinach sourced from farms located in the provider’s home state of Illinois. As part of the program, Pathway residents also participate in recreational visits to some of these farms.
The program is meant to engage residents by showing them where their produce comes from while also supporting local food producers, according to Pathway’s Director of Culinary Experience, Eli Ayoub.
“Seeing the number of local farms, it gets me excited,” Ayoub told SHN. “The residents have really enjoyed it, too. Bringing in fresh and local produce, they are happy as can be.”
Additionally, senior living providers need to offer residents a wide variety of choices regarding the food they eat, especially as more baby boomers begin to enter retirement age. By doing so, providers stand a better chance of enticing younger seniors to move in, Ayoub said.
“The farm-to-table movement … is not just a senior living movement. It’s all over in restaurants, hotels, and farmers markets,” he added. “The generation that’s getting ready to retire, they want this farm-to-table food.”
While Pathway does incur an additional operational cost by working local food into its menu and taking its residents to the farm, the cost is manageable. Locally grown ingredients might cost anywhere from 18% to 20% more than their globally sourced counterparts, depending on the food item, Ayoub said.
“It’s not cheaper, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lot more expensive,” he added. “And if you’re able to control your food waste and have portion control, that will help you spare money to put toward the new initiatives like farm-to-table.”
Produce Alliance also helps standardize costs and, when it can, recommend ingredients that might cost less.
“We can create a national produce program where every community will have the same pricing nationwide,” Yaffe said.
Going to market
Working with a produce supplier like Produce Alliance is just one way senior living providers give residents access to local food. Other providers help residents access local fare by hosting farmers markets.
Wake Robin, a 332-unit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Shelburne, Vermont, hosts a weekly mid-day farmers market for residents and staffers between the months of May and October. During the event, local food producers gather at the CCRC to sling fresh produce, eggs, cheese, meat, or prepared food items like pizza, charcuterie, breads and pastries.
Wake Robin also serves some local products in its dining room. The idea is to offer healthy, whole foods to residents while boosting the local economy, according to Kate Hays, Wake Robin’s director of dining.
“Vermont is so progressive in the whole locavore movement that it’s the expectation here,” Hays told SHN. “It does take a little more creativity to balance the cost of a plate with more expensive ingredients, but it’s a more healthful way to eat if you serve smaller animal-based proteins and more vegetables.”
St. Petersburg, Florida-based Solvere Senior Living also plans to host farmers markets at its newly opened Tessera of Brandon assisted living and memory care community in Brandon, Florida. The community hosted one farmers market earlier this summer, with another planned for the fall, according to Dora Barber, vice president of sales and marketing with Solvere.
“Eating healthy is such a conscious thing for all people now,” Barber said. “By having this series, it’s a way to continue that.”
Additionally, Solvere’s management plans to procure mostly organic products from at least six area family farms and vendors so residents can enjoy local fare throughout the year.
“By eating well, our residents are healthier,” Barber added. “From a business standpoint, it’s also attracting younger residents that are interested in that. But, to me, a huge piece of this is that we are supporting our local community.”
Written by Tim Regan