Hospital Farms Grow To Heal

Hospital Farms Grow To Heal

Hospital Farms Grow To Heal

  • Published on January 13, 2017

Jim Pantaleo

Director of Business Development at Urban Ag News

By Jim Pantaleo (The below is an excerpt from the January 2017, Issue 16 of Urban Ag News. For the full article please go to:

Su·per·food, ˈso͞opər fo͞od/

Plural: Superfoods - A nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.

In my six decades on planet Earth, I’ve never spent a single night in a hospital…with the exception of when I slept on cold linoleum after the birth of my first child back in 1997. So I can credibly say I’ve never been subjected to hospital food, much maligned what with all of its high sodium and sugar (Jell-O!). Given that a hospital should be a place of healing and recovery, it’s no secret that most in the United States are woefully deficient when it comes to the food they serve their patients.

Of course I’m not referring to those patients requiring a special diet or relegated to certain and specific food types. For the majority of “regular eaters” or those who don’t require a specialized diet, one would think hospital dieticians, physicians and administrative policy makers would know better in terms of what’s being put on the menu. They do know better, and there is no question; dietitians and healthcare professionals are dedicating their lives to making a positive difference in providing healing and wellness options to patients.

In a recent New York City Food Policy Center newsletter Dr. Robert Graham, founder of FRESH MED NYC, an integrative health practice that emphasizes nutrition along with conventional medicine, said, “During the past four years of the Healthy Hospital Food Initiative, we can applaud some hospitals for thinking differently about the food they offer patients and visitors. Hospitals are beginning to appreciate the old adage of ‘food is medicine.’”

There is however another (not so) little secret in today’s health care world – cost. Food which is not generally considered healing or restorative is inexpensive. Food that heals? Not so much. Just imagine being a patient recovering from any general ailment and being served a breakfast which includes a fresh wheat grass-apple-carrot smoothie and an egg white omelet with fresh spinach instead of a “fruit cup” and watered down eggs.

Hospital farms are a unique albeit scarce answer to address the challenge of providing healing and wellness through food. Before I dig deep, let’s consider for a moment the proven healing properties of food which can be grown for that which ails us; foods like garlic, turmeric, mushrooms, culinary herbs, micro greens, wheat grass, carrots, sweet potatoes and leafy greens and lettuces. Many of these foods are being successfully grown on available hospital land, within onsite greenhouses or even indoors with the use of LED lighting.

 A 2015 study published in Preventative Medicine Reports found that hospital gardens are not only associated with lower rates of obesity in communities they serve, “they may hold potential to complement other strategies to reduce public health disparities through providing nutrition education, promoting lifestyle physical activity among patients and hospital employees, accelerating healing from injury and disease, and growing food for medically underserved populations.”

Still, it’s hard to believe that some 42 U.S. hospitals actually host either a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A onsite. This recently prompted the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to enact the petition “Make Hospital Patient Rooms Fast Food-Free.” (source)

In Ypsilanti, Michigan the St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital is leading the way and in just 6 years following the first crop planting in 2010 on 10 onsite and available acres, the farm has grown to 25 acres, three hoop houses and four beehives. The Farm at St. Joe’s, as it is known, grows fresh basil, collard greens, spinach, garlic and strawberries all on hospital grounds.

 “The farm helps us support a culture of wellness in the hospital,” says director of nutrition and wellness Lisa McDowell. “We can’t grow enough to meet the needs of all of our patients and staff, but we can make an educational statement about the importance of eating a healthy diet.”

As of the writing of this article in Mid December, the weather in Ypsilanti will hit a high of 19 degrees Fahrenheit. This not-so-balmy temperature begs for growing in a controlled, indoor environment not only to supplement greenhouse-grown produce but also to continue to provide jobs and employment for hospital “farm staff” year round.

The Farm at St. Joe’s Video  

There is no doubt that engaging in such Ag undertakings represent an investment and hospital budgets are beastly enough; to the point where I was disappointed when doing my research to find there are not a lot of onsite hospital farms in the United States. In fact, I discovered only about a dozen with actual onsite operations. Many hospitals, especially those with significant food and beverage budgets, rely on large food distribution companies (think SYSCO) to feed patients, staff and hospital visitors (cafeteria). Canned, boxed, processed or ready-to-eat meals are ubiquitous and cost-effective. Fresh, local and possibly even USDA-certified organic options are simply not available or feasible for many hospitals despite the obvious short and long-term benefits.

St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania opened a 10-acre farm in 2015 (onsite at the Anderson campus) which provides over 44,000 pounds of produce per year, all going to patients, cafeterias and farmers markets (source). In partnering with the Rodale Institute, pioneers in organic farming through research and outreach, the Hospital’s Auxiliary raised $125,000 used for farm start-up costs. The result is the St. Luke’s Rodale Institute Organic Farm. The farm’s success also begat a 1,200 square foot hoop house to help extend the growing season, an additional 1.5 acres added in 2016, and a renewed Food Revolution movement at the hospital.

Jim Pantaleo, Director of Business Development at Urban Ag News.


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