Late this spring, St. Patrick Hospital took a bold step toward making its community of employees, patients and visitors more sustainable by opening a retail table for local foods in the facility's cafeteria. The hospital has for years relied on Montana producers for menu item ingredients, says Cafeteria Supervisor Mary Jo Chopp, and the for-sale spread seemed a logical evolution for St. Pat's ongoing green initiative.
"We're just trying to get people to think more about their food sources," Chopp says. "And because of the fact we're a fairly large employer in the city, we've been trying to do other things to kind of forge the way."
But the foray into the retail market—with offerings like bread from Worden's Market and fresh produce from the New Rockport Colony near Conrad—hasn't generated the enthusiasm some had hoped. Chopp says she's seen limited business since the table opened in May, a reality she finds both frustrating and disappointing.
"So far, it really hasn't taken off the way I would have liked it to have taken off," Chopp says. "I don't know if it's because people don't think about it, or because it's weird because we are a cafeteria."
Dave Prather, general manager for the Western Montana Grower's Cooperative (WMGC) in Arlee, isn't surprised. Entering the sustainable retail market comes with a host of challenges, he says, especially considering the poor growing conditions that characterized late spring and early summer. Yet the startup at St. Pat's fits well with WMGC's own efforts to expand, and the cooperative—which serves roughly 100 clients statewide through its wholesale operation—is eager to join the cafeteria's spread in the coming month.
"We've slowly been expanding our markets as our production levels have increased," Prather says, "so we've been able to pursue more things such as working with St. Pat's."
Despite the difficult debut, Chopp insists the hospital will continue offering and even expanding its selection of local foods at least through the end of the year. She's dead-set now on featuring Posh Chocolate at the table, for variety's sake.
"We're definitely trying to pull in some of the local flavor," she says.