SUNBELT EXPO: Collaborative working to provide food to rural hospitals | Local News

MOULTRIE, Ga. — An organization with links to the hospital industry is at the Sunbelt Ag Expo this week, recruiting farmers to help build a food pipeline from the farm to rural hospitals.

The Georgia Rural Hospital Food Collaborative is a not-for-profit organization based out of Colquitt, Ga. Its founder, Robin Rau saw an opportunity eight years ago when she realized that there were only two main groups distributing to healthcare organizations: Sysco Foods and U.S. Foods, according to Rau.

Rau, the CEO of Miller County Hospital, operates Shelby Acres, where she produces beef, pork, lamb and goat meat. 

“For several years I had been selling beef and pork directly to hospitals and long-term care facilities,” Rau said in an interview Wednesday morning. 

In 2019 a blueberry farmer contacted Rau through Clinch Memorial Hospital CEO Angela Ammons.

“(Ammons) reached out to me and asked, ‘Is this something that you can help with?’” Rau said. “The issue was they couldn’t sell them in supermarkets or things of that nature so the Georgia farmer was cut out. So I ended up buying thousands of pints of blueberries and gave them to my employees.”

That was the first of many conversations that would later become the GRHFC.

“A conversation started on what I was doing to help the Georgia farmer in beef and pork and then blueberries,” Rau said.

In 2020 Rau, like many other Americans, saw a shortage in many things including food.

“We saw food shortages, we saw material shortages and people were aware of the shortages for antibiotics, personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Nobody was talking about the shortage of food. Then beef and pork became unavailable. So, how do you feed long term care facilities and hospitals if you cannot get beef and pork?” Rau said.

Rau envisioned direct food supplies to medical facilities and she began to get other leaders from around Georgia involved, including Georgia Ag Commissioner Gary Black, state Rep. Terry England, ABAC President David Bridges, who’s also director of the Center for Rural Innovation and Prosperity, Matt Kirk of the Healthcare Service Group and Jimmy Lewis of Hometown Health. 

“It was just a natural escalation of what I was doing on my own,” Rau said.

By May of 2021, the GRHFC was born. Since its inception, the program has been partnering with Georgia farmers to sell their product with rural hospitals. 

“We pay top dollar for the producers’ animals. But they have to meet our standards,” Rau said.

All farmers who wish to participate have to pass through certain certifications but Rau said they are fairly simple.

“We want USDA certified beef. Grass fed at first then finished with grain… All our producers are A Greener World certified in both Non-GMOs and Grass fed,” Rau said.

Producers must also be Animal Welfare Approved which maintains the integrity of the treatment of the animals. The AWA is the only farm certification program in the U.S. that is recognized by the International Organization of Standardization for quality and integrity, according to A Greener World, an organization dedicated to the treatment of livestock.

Rau will soon open her own processing facility in Colquitt, complete with a connected shopping store to sell the collaborative’s products. Once it opens, she will be paying her employees $20 an hour with benefits.

“We are dedicated to producing a top dollar product for the best value for the consumer. We will be making money off our operations but that is going directly back into the employees and the facility,” Rau said.

Rau hopes to continue expanding the program across Georgia. She has been meeting with potential distributors throughout the Expo at the Dairy Pavilion.

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