Communities are benefiting from the growing number of hospital farms


by Jodi Helmer

There are no mystery meats slathered in congealed gravy, rehydrated mashed potatoes or frozen peas served at St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN). The patients recuperating in the 10-hospital network in Pennsylvania are served with potatoes, onions, cabbage, beets, cucumbers and other fresh produce grown on the 11.5-acre farm on the Anderson campus.

Farmer Lynn Trizna plants more than 100 varieties of produce; she harvests an estimated 50,000 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs each year, which is distributed to all hospital kitchens and cafeterias and served to patients, staff and visitors. The hospital established St. Luke’s Rodale Institute Organic Farm in 2014 to promote the importance of fresh, nutritious foods for good health.

‘By providing patients with locally-grown organic produce, St. Luke’s is showing a commitment to the environment and promoting the health of its patients and the community,” Trizna says.

Plants grown in the hoop houses on the hospital campus are sheltered from the elements. The setup allows Carson Tahoe Health to grow fruits and vegetables year-round. • Photo courtesy of Carson Tahoe Health

Hospitals from New York and Wisconsin to Nevada and Michigan are embracing the concept of “food as medicine” and establishing farms on hospital campuses. In addition to delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to patient rooms, hospitals also distribute fresh foods through outpatient programs, establish farm markets and CSA programs, donate produce to community organizations and teach culinary classes.

The programs are so popular that several hospital farms have expanded to keep up with the demand. In 2011, Stony Brook University Hospital established an 800-square foot rooftop farm with a grant from a state health department and expanded to 2,200 square feet — tripling the amount of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli and other fresh vegetables and herbs growing on the rooftop of the Long Island hospital — just one year later.

St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, planted the first crops on its two-acre onsite farm in 2010. The farm has grown to include three hoop houses that allow for year- round production of more than 67 varieties of fresh produce from spinach and kale to tomatoes and basil.

“The farm is one of our tangible investments in whole-person wellness,” explains farm manager Amanda Sweetman. “We really wanted to make sure that the hospital was a place for people to come to be well and the farm has become the heartbeat of that effort.”

Hoop houses help keep plants warm when temperatures drop, allowing Carson Tahoe Health to grow vegetables on its Carson City, Nevada, campus all year long. • Photo courtesy of Carson Tahoe Health

Sharing the Bounty

The farm at St. Joseph Mercy sells produce through a weekly market at the hospital. Shoppers range from hospital staff and patients to local residents eager to stock up on fresh foods at affordable prices. Sweetman hopes the market will soon be able to accept SNAP benefits. The farm also offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription that provides members with a box of produce packed with just-harvested produce each week. The popular offering experienced 1100 percent growth since it was launched in 2015.

After a 2014 Feeding America survey estimated that almost 8,000 residents of Carson City, Nevada, lacked reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious foods, Carson Tahoe Health decided to take action. The 240-bed hospital partnered with a local nonprofit, The Greenhouse Project, to establish a farm called The Foothill Garden on the hospital campus.

“We couldn’t produce the volume of fresh produce we needed to serve food grown on the farm to our patients or in the hospital cafeteria,” explains Diane Rush, director of public information for Carson Tahoe Health. “We decided to distribute it to the members of our community who needed it.”

The Greenhouse Project delivers all of the produce to local food banks and the Meals on Wheels program. In 2018, the farm donated 700-plus pounds of fruits and vegetables grown on the hospital campus.

Carson Tahoe Health grows more than 700 pounds of produce in raised beds and hoop houses on a farm on its hospital campus. All of the produce is donated to local community organizations. • Photo courtesy of Carson Tahoe Health

Cooking up Solutions

While hospital promote healthier eating, convincing patients to trade comfort foods like mac and cheese for whipped turnips and sautéed spinach can be challenging. It takes continued marketing and support from staff, including chefs, for hospitals to get patients to rethink their diets in the hopes of having a positive impact on their health.

Clinicians affiliated with St. Joseph Mercy distribute some of the harvest through a Produce-to-Patients program that helps those living with diet-related chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes who might not be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. The program grew from serving 250 patients in 2017 to serving more than 3,500 last year.

“It’s one thing to tell a patient, ‘You have diabetes and you need to manage it,’ and another thing to tell them, ‘We’re going to help you and one of the ways we’re going to do that is through lifestyle change and healthier eating; here are fresh vegetables to get you started and here is how you can get more produce from our farm,’” Sweetman explains. “They really get to see that we believe food is good medicine and we are committed to helping them get healthier.”

Carson Tahoe Health hosts workshops on topics ranging from growing garlic and chemical-free vegetable production to extending the growing season; hospital nutritionists host nutrition classes and cooking demonstrations.

In Pennsylvania, St. Luke’s partnered with The Rodale Institute for help creating and implementing a plan for the farm; Trizna oversees the operation and works alongside the chefs at SLUHN to choose fruit and vegetable varieties and plan the upcoming growing season — and the collaborations are, well, fruitful.

Ed Nawrocki, president of SLUHN East Region and Anderson Campus explains, “[The farm] has had a positive impact on our employees’ eating habits. Growing our own produce has allowed us to discount fresh fruit and salad in our cafeterias and since dropping prices, we have seen an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.”

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