Georgia farmers find new market in rural hospitals


ATLANTA – Last week’s session of a legislative committee looking for ways to improve rural Georgia’s economy was full of discouraging statistics showing population losses, failing schools and inadequate health care.

This story also appeared on the Capitol Beat News Service

But in the midst of this tribulation and doom, Georgia House Rural Development Council members got a glimpse into the fledgling efforts of a nonprofit that helps farmers find new markets for their products and could help revitalize Georgia’s textile industry.

The Georgia Rural Hospital Food Collaborative was launched last May to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, pork and beef, and even medicinal scrubs to rural hospitals and nursing homes.

“It’s not just good for hospitals. It’s good for nursing homes, ”said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health Care, which represents Georgia rural hospitals. “It’s good economic development.”

The food collaboration is a by-product of the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted the supply chains that Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers rely on to get their perishable crops to market.

HomeTown Health Care has partnered with the Healthcare Services Group, which manages hospital food and nutrition services, to eliminate middlemen and deliver fruits and vegetables directly to hospitals and nursing homes.

Sixteen rural hospitals and nursing homes are participating in the program, David Bridges, interim director of the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity, told Rural Development Council members on Sept. 1.

Selling fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices increases the profitability of rural facilities, which often operate at low profit margins, said Bridges, who is also president of the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tlfton.

“If they have to decide whether to pay for food or for nurses, we want them to pay the nurses,” he said.

“The patients in the hospitals love it,” added Lewis. “It’s going really well.”

Beef and pork producers in Georgia also face the same supply chain issues, making it difficult to get cattle and pigs raised here to processors outside of the state in a timely manner.

Lewis said the Miller County Development Authority provided the solution and offered to buy a local slaughterhouse and rent it to the food collaboration.

“We have farms that process their beef,” said Lewis.

Another project involving HomeTown Health and the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity has the potential to revitalize a textile industry that has lost thousands of jobs to international outsourcing for decades.

In collaboration with the Swainsboro-based textile manufacturer America Knits, the two launched Field to Closet, an initiative to provide free medical scrubs made from 100% cotton to hospitals in Georgia. So far, 16 rural hospitals have registered.

The project spins Georgia-grown cotton into yarn at Parkdale Mills in Rabun Gap, weaves the yarn into fabric in North Carolina, and goes to America Knits’ facility for final production. As an added benefit, the fabric is treated with an antimicrobial chemical that inhibits the growth of bacteria and has been shown to destroy viruses in laboratory tests.

“There was a time when an end-to-end US cotton clothing supply chain was a pipe dream,” said Steve Hawkins, America Knits CEO.

“Working on this project fits in perfectly with our focus on creating wealth for smaller rural communities and creating high quality, environmentally friendly products in the United States.”

Lewis envisions extending the medical scrubs project to all types of cotton clothing to “revive” overseas cotton production. He said several large companies are interested in investing, including Ralph Lauren and Nike.

“If we could pursue [cotton] From the seed to a new cotton product … we can bring cotton back to the United States, ”said Lewis. “We have every part of the cluster to make the re-shoring a reality.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a Georgia Press Educational Foundation project.

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