Essentia Health, a major hospital and clinic system based in Duluth, has committed to buying 20 percent of its food locally by 2020.
Essentia operates 18 hospitals in a four-state region, and it joins the smaller St. Lukes Hospital in the local-food goal.
A steady and growing demand for local food will encourage small producers to expand, said Jamie Harvie, executive director of the Institute for a Sustainable Future, a nonprofit that encourages businesses to buy food locally.
"We also need that demand to demonstrate that investments can be made into the local infrastructure, on-farm storage, meat processing and so forth," Harvie said, "and I think what these commitments allow is for the development of the broader infrastructure and distribution needs and so forth, that will allow us to really take these efforts to the next level."
The shift to local food will improve health and the region's economy, Harvie said, adding that the participation of the region's largest health care system will make a big difference.
"It's really starting to shift the conversation from 'this is sort of a good idea' to 'let's measure it,'" Harvie said, "and that's really what's significant about Essentia's commitment. And they join a variety of businesses and restaurants throughout the western Lake Superior region."