Apr 23, 2020
How Hospitals Can Use On-Site Agricultural Methods To Turn Food Into Medicine
As we face the impacts of COVID-19, the health of our food systems and stability of our hospitals have never been more important. Decentralized supply chains, access to fresh food, and preventative care are at the forefront of our minds, as we find ways to slow the pandemic, and avoid the rise of future global health crises.
In recent years, hospitals have started to take a proactive stance to healthcare—focusing also on maintaining health, rather than just curing illnesses. A large part of this shift has been the inclusion of food in the healthcare narrative. Today, hospital campuses have their own organic farms, hydroponic systems, and rooftop gardens, shortening the food supply chain and ensuring the availability of fresh produce for patients and visitors alike.
In this article, we highlight two hospitals in Michigan, the Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital and the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, to show how agricultural projects have elevated their healthcare and strengthened their communities.
About the Farms
Saint Joseph Mercy
The farm at Saint Joseph Mercy started in 2010 to “grow a healthy community by empowering people through food, education, and relationships.” Today, the hospital has two 30x96 foot hoop houses and one handicap-accessible hoop house. They have approximately an acre and a half of surrounding agricultural land, where crops are grown on raised beds and maintained through organic practices.
We interviewed Amanda Sweetman, the Regional Director of Farming and Healthy Lifestyles for Trinity Michigan, to learn more about their farm. As part of her role within the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, she oversees the farm at St. Joe’s Ann Arbor.
From a $1 million anonymous donation and a donor’s desire to see food added to the hospital’s healthcare approach, the Henry Ford Health System built its own greenhouse. Today the greenhouse, located on the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital campus, grows a variety of produce, including kale, cherry tomatoes, basil, and cilantro, using multiple methods, such as bato buckets and nutrient film technique (NFT) systems.
We interviewed Trevor Johnson, the resident farmer at the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Since joining the farm, he has added a trellising system for the tomatoes, conducted research on plant varieties, and reduced the overall number of crops grown to better meet the needs of the hospital’s kitchen.
Four Main Benefits of Hospital-Based Agriculture:
1. Expanding Reach
Through food, the hospitals aim to transition from a reactive care model to a proactive one, changing what healthcare means for all.
Saint Joseph Mercy
By adding food to healthcare, Saint Joseph Mercy is transforming the hospital from a place that treats illness, to a place where health is celebrated and maintained. Recently, the hospital changed their electronic medical record so that doctors can refer food-insecure patients to the hospital’s farm share, directly from their office. For Saint Joseph Mercy, there is immense power in food—it is also medicine.
The hospital also aims to address the social determinants of health, to give everyone access to quality health care. In 2017, the hospital received a grant from the Michigan Environmental Council to subsidize their farm share program. According to Amanda Sweetman, in 2017 and 2018, 40 families per year received produce for free. Last year, the hospital supported 55 families, and this year, the hospital hopes to subsidize produce for up to 100 families.
The hospital also received a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, called the Nutrition Buddies Program, to conduct culinary medicine training for medical residents. The residents then teach at-risk youth these same skills, to help them understand that food has the capacity to heal.
Over the next few years, Sweetman hopes to extend the farm’s reach even further—expanding farm and garden locations to more campuses, supporting more local farmers, and engaging more schools and medical groups in their mission to grow a healthy community.
According to Trevor Johnson, adding a farm is about capacity building and increasing the hospital’s impact. For the Henry Ford Health System, food is a natural addition to healthcare.
While the greenhouse produces two tons of produce per year, the team’s primary goal is far from churning out food. Rather, it prioritizes education and outreach. The day we interviewed Johnson, he had spent his morning at a STEAM school, expanding their reach to engage with students in their community.
As the hospital looks to the future, Johnson is exploring ways to expand partnerships, looking to local organizations for field trips, and creating opportunities for people to have lunch at the hospital kitchen. With access to their own produce, the hospital now makes everything from scratch and has the ability to show people that hospitals can be hubs for good food. Through culinary experiences, Johnson hopes to help people build a relationship with hospitals, not just for when they are sick, but also for when they are looking to stay healthy.
2. Revitalizing Local Economies
Hospital-based agriculture systems support local farmers and produce, boosting business and feeding the local economy.
Saint Joseph Mercy
While the farm at Saint Joseph Mercy aims to produce “diverse and delicious food,” it cannot single-handedly support the hospital’s entire food supply. Last year, the farm produced approximately 9,000 pounds of produce. While the program continues to grow, the hospital prioritizes partnerships with local Michigan farms to ensure it can meet the needs of its staff and community. Through their farm stand and farm share (also known as community supported agriculture, CSA), the hospital not only provides access to fresh produce for its patients, staff, and visitors, but also supports local farmers through new sales channels.
Through the farmers market, Saint Joseph Mercy has moved over $25,000 worth of produce. Through the farm share, they collaborated with 24 local farms, generating $108,000 worth of revenue last year—accounting for two to 30% of their partner farms’ sales.
The hospital also received a $250,000 grant from its parent corporation, Trinity Health, to develop a permanent structure called the “Food Hub.” This will serve as an aggregation site for the farm share that can hold at least 500 whole share equivalents. Sweetman says that through this, the hospital can better leverage the power of economic collaboration with local farms.
Having managed the hospital’s greenhouse, Johnson understands that people want the “local feel,” and it’s his job to bring this to life. He manages Henry’s Market on Main, a June to November farmers market that sells produce from the hospital’s farm, and from partner farms. Elevated by his farming experience, the local food creates value-added products, such as a pesto made from basil grown in the hospital’s greenhouse that the community has come to love.
Johnson recognizes that the work associated with the farm has significant community benefits. Through the hospital’s farmers market, local farmers made approximately $10,000 last year. Furthermore, the farm continues to support local food security by working with Blessings in a Backpack, a nonprofit that helps feed school children who are at risk of going hungry on weekends.
3. Building New Experiences
Hospital farms make food and farming both healing and exciting, encouraging people to engage with hospitals on a more regular basis.
Saint Joseph Mercy
Creating memorable, positive experiences is a critical part of Saint Joseph Mercy’s mission. Every spring, summer, and fall, the Eisenhower Center’s traumatic brain injury recovery group visits the farm, allowing the patients to receive physical and occupational therapy in a beautiful horticultural space.
The hospital’s farm share has also created new culinary experiences, since a majority of the program’s members are first-time participants. Since joining Saint Joseph Mercy’s farm share program, 93% of members have tried at least one new fruit and vegetable, according to their 2018 Farm Report.
Among young people, the hospital aims to “make curiosity cool again.” The farm has invited almost 1,000 Ypsilanti community school students for field trips. They have also hosted 45 kids for summer camps, awarding five of them with financial scholarships. This is an opportunity to expand learning beyond the four walls of the classroom, and offer fun learning experiences around food and farming.
At Henry Ford, their goal is to create experiences that will leave people coming back for more. The work with the farmers market goes beyond producing commodities; it’s about creating experiences that let people know they are being cared for from the ground up.
According to Johnson, “the main goal of the [farming] program is to transform how people relate to their own health and well-being.” Through their Chef-For-A-Day and Farmer-For-A-Day programs for kids, the Henry Ford farm team builds excitement around using food as medicine—helping them understand that “health comes from life itself, rather than what we add to our life.”
4. Protecting Environmental Health
Agricultural systems on hospital campuses protect not only the health of people, but also the health of the environment.
Saint Joseph Mercy
What was once a combination of three family farms that had to be mowed, cut, and sprayed, is now organic farmland. As part of the no-till movement, farmhands at St. Joe’s Ann Arbor use a harrow and rotary to build the beds, and use silage tarps and cover crops to protect soil health. As a result, the hospital has reduced its carbon footprint by removing the need to mow grass, increased safety by removing the use of neonicotinoids, and supported their local farming community.
Of the 25 acres used for agriculture on the 365-acre campus, 23 are found outside of the campus’ deer fence and are used for hay. Not only does Saint Joseph Mercy’s farm follow organic practice, it also mitigates as much waste as possible. A partner farm collects the hay, which is then used to feed their cattle herd. In effect, the hospital creates a circular system that maximizes the resources available to them.
The farm at St. Joe’s has also allowed Sweetman to live out her personal purpose of ‘place making’—helping people care more about where they live to encourage conservation. With a background in wetland ecology, she notes the importance of natural system diversity in increasing resilience. The wildlife habitat on Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s campus is now certified with the National Wildlife Federation, protecting its oak hickory forest and a prairie that is home to threatened and endangered species.
From his experience with permaculture practices, Johnson has learned and adopted ‘systems thinking,’ now applying it to the decisions made for the greenhouse. As he noted during our interview, building farms on hospital campuses is less about what looks and feels good, and more about overall safety and health.
Limiting disease vectors is a top priority to ensure the safety not only of the people consuming the food, but of their surrounding environment. This is the reason Henry Ford Hospital chose to use hydroponics to grow their produce. They found that growing crops without soil limits the cultivation of microorganisms that can put people with suppressed immune systems at risk. Going a step further, they chose to locate the greenhouse at the back of the hospital’s campus, limiting the amount of human contact and pests that can threaten food safety and plant health.
The Saint Joseph Mercy Health System and Henry Ford Health System are leading the way in the hospital-based agriculture space. They prove that a hospital’s impact comes not only from healing, but also from harnessing the power of food to strengthen individuals and communities. As hospitals shift from being reactive to proactive drivers of health, we find that they can have deep-reaching and meaningful positive effects—shedding light on where our food comes from, the long-term benefits of nutrition, and our potential to create more resilient food and health systems.