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James Cochran and Sarah Nelson with the farmers' market talk shop with Dr. Preston Maring during the weekly Kaiser farmer's market on Friday June 13, 2008 in Oakland, Calif. Dr. Preston Maring says that about fifty people are currently ordering bags of groceries from the farmer's market. (Gregory Urquiaga/Contra Costa Times)

Back-to-back baby deliveries and patient visits crowd his days, but every Friday, Dr. Preston Maring has a standing appointment in the hospital parking lot — at the bustling farmers market he helped to launch.

"It's been five years since our first market, and every Friday I still pinch myself when I come in to work and see the tents set up," says the Oakland gynecologist. "I love to wander out there to see what goes on. It's like a big block party where everyone is getting excited about fruits and vegetables. That's what it's all about."

Since founding the market at the Oakland Kaiser campus five years ago, Maring has tweaked and expanded it, helped establish 29 other markets at Kaiser locations all over the country. To him, it's all about getting produce to busy people, old people, young people, even patients in the hospital.

Exactly how a practicing doctor has time to pioneer such a massive, broad-reaching project — including writing a blog and creating recipes to help people enjoy the produce they buy at the markets — is mind-boggling.

"When you are really passionate about something, you dig in and find time to do it," he says. Despite his busy schedule with patients, Maring says his supervisors allow him enough time away from the office to research farmers market issues, meet with farmers and deal with the necessary details of making the markets happen.

To Maring, the connection between farmers markets and health care is both natural and essential. "In a sense, this is about closing the loop," he says. "I figured out a long time ago that if you put fresh fruits and vegetables in front of people, they will eat them. It's very hard to walk by a fresh peach in summer. Or a ripe tomato, or a bunch of asparagus."

Seducing people with vegetables, he adds, is one of the most effective ways to improve people's lives. "We've done surveys that show that less than 10 percent of our patients eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Forty percent don't believe diet or exercise have anything to do with their health."

Besides making organic, fresh food available, one of the best ways to improve the way people eat, Maring says, is to target their kids. "We hosted 200 kids for field trips to our market here in Oakland this year. In April we hosted a field trip for high school seniors. We cooked them a grilled Caesar salad lunch and talked to them about food and jobs in health care.

"I still remember this one kid. He was about 6'4'' and he had this black hooded sweatshirt covering his eyes. When he came up to the table for his third huge plate of salad, he says to us, 'I don't eat salad.' We were floored. We made a connection. We had tears in our eyes."

Maring's farmers market adventure started innocently enough. As he passed through the hospital lobby each day, he noticed there were people selling things like purses and jewelry. "There's nothing wrong with those things, but I got to thinking that they really had nothing to do with our mission as a hospital and a health facility," he says.

That's when he hit on the idea of starting a farmers market. "I started by asking questions and going to other farmers markets. I ended up meeting with the head of the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association." After lots of negotiation and planning, the association agreed to bring a small market to Oakland Kaiser. A year later, the market opened.

"Even though it was only eight vendors, they brought a huge range of produce, including citrus, grapes, peaches, plums, apricots and raisins; bread, plants "...

"I remember on the first day of the market, people were so excited. One woman who was taking her husband into the emergency room stopped to ask how long the market would be open."

The success of the market is what prompted Maring to think about ways to extend the produce to more people. Getting it into the hospital kitchen was a huge coup, he says.

"When we first started the in-patient food program, we were working with 15 farmers. This year, the number will be more like 75," he says.

The things that help Maring know he's making a difference are details like this tidbit he read in a news story: Because the hospital's partnership with Central Valley farmer Roberto Rodriguez created such demand for his strawberries, five new workers were hired.

Since a bigger demand for organic produce will result in more farmers going organic, Maring is determined to do everything he can to get people to shop the markets.

"Last month I noticed that a lot of the people who worked in the hospitals didn't have time to shop the markets, so I decided to implement the 'Best of the Market,'" he says, adding that it's an idea he picked up while he was at a USDA Farmers Market Summit in Baltimore last year.

The $20 Best of the Market bags, which must be pre-ordered, are filled with produce that farmers know in advance will be ready for harvest. "The first week we did this (about a month ago), we had orders for 50 bags."

Maring didn't have a firm plan for actually getting the Best of the Market bags to the workers, but solutions were found. "Departments handle it like a latte run. They use the old chart carts we had for paper records." For large orders that need transportation to other buildings, the head gardener pitches in, loading up her electric cart.

Best of the Market has been a huge boon to the farmers, as it's given them a more stable finance base.

This month, he's brainstorming about how to get small selections of produce into the hands of seniors who can't get to the market. He's also busy updating his Web page and blog, including posting recipes, advice and reader feedback.

"What I tell people is that if an aging gynecologist can cook this, then so can you. On the blog, I share my mistakes and my successes. I'm not a trained chef, so people send me tips, too."

His blog is meant to help boost traffic at all of the farmers markets, so each new market can build off the success of others.

For Maring, it's never been about numbers. It's about helping people. Every new market that opens makes Maring smile, but he's especially proud of a few — including a market in Watts that opened a year ago, and a market at the NUMMI plant in Fremont.

"Think about it. You have 5,000 workers at that plant. On a Friday afternoon, if you have a market there, a lot of those workers will stop and pick up roses and vegetables to take home." That, Maring says, is why he does what he does.

"What this is about is bringing good food to people — getting it into their hands so that it will change their lives."

"Some people ask how do you do this or why do you do this. I don't have any delusions. I tell them, really, it's just one person at a time."

Contact Jolene Thym at 510-353-7008 or at jthym@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Find the doctor
Find Dr. Preston Maring's
home page at http://recipe.kaiser-permanente.org/kp/
maring. His blog includes archived recipes, health and diet information, and lots of tips on cooking and eating well.
There are 13 farmers markets at Kaiser hospitals in the Bay Area, including Fremont, Hayward, Redwood City, Martinez, Richmond, Vallejo, Tracy, Union City and Santa Clara. To get details about a market near you, go to members.kaiserpermanente.org/
redirects/farmersmarkets/
in-northern-california.htm.