Leveraging Our Anchor: Connecting a Health System’s Purchases to Local Suppliers

A story from The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation (WV).

Situated in the mountains of West Virginia, The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation (TGKVF) serves a six-county region that includes Charleston, the state’s capital. Like much of Appalachia, the region’s economy was built primarily on coal-mining and manufacturing—industries that, in recent decades, have seen a significant decline.

But every once in a while, institutions happen on an opportunity to try something new that makes a difference. That’s how TGKVF and a local medical center, the Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC), ended up in a collaborative partnership that is connecting two sectors, creating new and growing economic opportunity, and benefiting the broader region.

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In 2013, TGKVF began to organize its grantmaking around building multiple “capitals.” They wanted each grant to improve more than one bottom line by increasing a mix of intellectual, individual, built, natural and social assets along with financial. They got together with CAMC because both organizations wanted to find ways to improve local economic and health outcomes, and they were curious about what they could accomplish by working together with the resources already in their community. They saw an opportunity to build a value chain that could supply healthy locally produced food to local hospitals. The collaboration would help producers in the region, many of them low-income, expand their skills, capacity and income, and it would provide the local hospitals (and their patients and employees) with fresher, tastier and more nutritious ingredients.

After a few years, the value chain is starting to make a difference in the local agricultural sector both in dollars and capacity. More local growers have learned about and achieved institutional certification requirements and are changing what and how they produce their food, improving their skills, and discovering opportunities to supply other markets in the process. For example, hospital staff who noticed local produce arriving in the kitchens started requesting their own boxes of produce from the suppliers. Medical center staff have also begun to replace vending machine food with locally grown produce vending machines. A separate business was established to retrofit the machines to sell the produce.

In the most recent quarter, 23% of CAMC’s spending on food went to local producers, growing from nearly 0% a few years earlier. TGKVF has also discovered a new way of working, moving beyond their traditional grantmaking role to become a regional wealth-building leader, an exciting new role that many place-rooted foundations could play.