Among the concrete columns at University Hospital’s patient pickup/drop-off point, fresh sprouts are available at Debrilla’s Living Foods. Debrilla Ratchford is of one of the 10-odd vendors that compose UNM Hospitals’ weekly Farm Fresh on the Plaza event—a growers’ market, essentially—which goes down Wednesdays from 2 to 5 p.m. There’s fresh produce, prepared foods hot and cold, and lots of informed conversation going on. In fact, Ratchford is decidedly less interested in taking my money for a sack of intriguing sprouted seven grains than she is in discussing the perils of cooking food. While I’m interested in what she has to say, I can’t take my eyes off the hot tamales next door.
The market was conceived and manifested by the hospital’s Employee Wellness Service Team, says Mark Rolfson, a development specialist at UNM Hospitals (whose email signature line is followed by the Gareth Morgan quote: "Farmers don't grow crops. They create the conditions in which crops grow.")
“Our primary goals were to expose our employees, patients and visitors to some healthy, locally grown or produced foods, to promote wellness and demonstrate community outreach,” Rolfson tells me in an email. As the market is directed at hospital-related people, members of the general public are invited, but not their cars. “Foot traffic is welcome, but we are not set up to attract additional vehicle traffic, so the market by nature will remain fairly small.”
That said, he admits last week was the biggest yet, at 650 visitors. That’s still small by many market standards, but the action is steady, thanks to an endless stream of people crossing the plaza, including regular shoppers as well as some folks in need of a snack.
The fact that the market is on Wednesday is a bonus for growers.
“As a farmer, you need a midweek market, because the produce doesn’t know to stop ripening until next weekend” explains Jeffrey Lee of Hand To Mouth Foods. And the customers here, he says, are different from the usual growers’ market crowd. “They tend to be more business-oriented. They know what they want, they get in, they get out.” Another produce vendor, Agri-Cultura Network, collectively markets naturally grown food from several South Valley farms, with some of the proceeds going toward young farmer education.
The sprouts are a crunchy and nutty rainbow of grains, lentils and beans, with vibrant potency.
Hospital guests might not have use for raw produce, but the market offers an impressive selection of prepared foods as well. Two bakeries, Kola Tree and House of Bread, provide very different styles of baked goods. There’s salsa, gluten-free granola and the usual selection of garden-grown, artisanally finished delicacies from Hand To Mouth. There’s even a kettle-corn truck and the Mother Truckin’ Gourmet food cart lurking across the parking lot, next to the folks from Moriarty selling corn and honey. And in the corner by the concrete columns, I found Tamale Loco, a stand serving some of the best gourmet tamales I’ve ever had. The menu says, “All tamales are made with local and organic ingredients, whenever possible.” The creative combination of chicken verde with fried plantain was amazingly successful in its white masa vessel, as was a vegan wild rice, water chestnuts and green chile tamale. Another vegan offering, roasted portobello adovada with chopped red onion in red chile masa, was satisfying in a meaty way. And there are dessert tamales along the lines of dried cherries and brie in chocolate masa.
The location being what it is, many passersby could use fresh nutrients like Ratchford’s seven grain sprouts—if only they would stop. The sprouts are a crunchy and nutty rainbow of grains, lentils and beans, with vibrant potency. It’s as satisfying as sushi. Fresh sprouts are a concern these days thanks to the European E. coli outbreak. If conditions are not clean, the same temperature and humidity that favor sprout growth also favor bacterial growth. Ratchford had to prove her sprouts’ worthiness to the hospital market organizers, which are hardly an easy crowd on this kind of issue. But these hoops were probably less of a hassle than when Ratchford filed her successful patent application, in 1978, for the rolling airport luggage technology. Yes, that rolling airport luggage.
Despite the hospital’s odd (and usually somber) context, the mood at Fresh on the Plaza is upbeat and life-affirming, just like the food. The juxtaposition is poignant. You might even find some patients just standing around, soaking in the ambiance like ambulatory sunbathers. If the end goal is health, then every hospital needs a growers’ market.
Wednesdays, 2 to 5 p.m. through Sept. 28
University of New Mexico Hospitals, main entrance
2211 Lomas NE