Go local: Hospital farm serves up healthy eating

Pledge calls for local, healthy food

Even in the dead of winter, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, serves up freshly picked vegetables and sells produce in a hospital-based farmer's market. It is locally grown — in a "hoop house" on the hospital's own farm.

This is an unusual example of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the employees, patients, visitors and community of a hospital. But it emerged out of a movement to make hospitals a place not just for healing, but for health.

Out of 140 hospitals in Michigan, at least 75 have signed a Healthy Food Hospitals pledge to provide a "multi-faceted healthy eating experience," which includes nutritional and locally grown food, healthy food and beverages for children, and labeling of nutritional content in the cafeteria.

"Michigan needs a healthy food environment. Why not ask hospitals to be a model?" says Paige Hathaway, MPA, member relations representative with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association in Lansing. "Our current food system favors highly refined, calorie-dense foods, rather than fresh foods and vegetables with high fiber. The hospital is leading by example."

Michigan hospitals have already taken the lead in other health issues. Almost all (93%) of the hospitals have smoke-free campuses and 89% eliminated trans fats in the patient menus, vending machines and cafeterias.

In fact, more than 350 hospitals nationwide have signed onto the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition that supports environmentally sound health care practices. (The pledge can be found at www.noharm.org/us_canada/issues/food/pledge.php) The pledge includes an emphasis on "sustainability," such as food grown without synthetic pesticides or hormones and food grown by local farmers.

In many places, it's much easier to find fast food or convenience store items than fresh produce, says Hillary Bisnett, Healthy Food in Health Care coordinator with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, a non-profit that is working with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

"Fifty-two communities across Michigan still don't have adequate access to healthy food. We want to change that," she says.

Employees raised the hoop house

When it comes to sustainability, you can't get any more local than the food at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. The hospital sits on 364 acres that once was farmland. So in 2010, the hospital hired a farmer, reclaimed 15 acres as farmland and built a "hoop house," a greenhouse with a plastic roof over flexible piping.

Employees literally took a stake in the new project as they helped clear the land and construct the hoop house. "We had a management team-building exercise and invited all managers to come out and throw rocks [from the field]," says Lisa McDowell, MS, RD, CNSD, manager of clinical nutrition.

Employees helped construct the hoop houses – a second one was built in September 2010. They also can volunteer to help plant, weed, and harvest.

The first plantings were modest — spinach, kale, cherry tomatoes. But now the pickings include garlic, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, carrots, herbs, kale, spinach, different kinds of lettuce, collard greens, swiss chard, winter squash and pumpkins.

The hospital's first farmer's market last summer sold out in 20 minutes. Food from the farm is used in hospital menu items, and employees can buy from the weekly market or pick up produce in a small Grab N Go store.

The hospital also hired a new chef for One North Market, a new restaurant for employees and visitors that will emphasize fresh produce. The tomatoes in the sandwiches, Tuscan kale in the soup and the spinach in the salads will come from the farm.

The offerings fit in well with the hospital's wellness program, which promotes eating more fruits and vegetables as well as lowering the body-mass index and increasing physical activity.

McDowell hopes the farm will expand with more hoop houses and even fruit orchards, education programs and community partnerships. "We were dreaming big when we pitched the idea [of the farm]," she says. "With the successes we've realized in a little over a year, it's been a whirlwind."