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To Treat And Eat: St Joe's Cultivates Healthy Meals

Lisa McDowell and Dan Bair at St Joe's hoop houses
Lisa McDowell and Dan Bair at St Joe's hoop houses
Farm-fresh greens and local tomatoes on a hospital dinner tray? Mmmmm - I feel better already.

Saint Joseph Mercy Health System is part of a growing national movement to give hospital food a good name. The Ypsilanti hospital has its own tiny farm with a pair of hoop houses for growing crops year-round and a weekly farmer's market that regularly sells out of produce and cut flowers.

In a recent study by Health Care Without Harm, an international agency promoting sustainable practices in health care institutions, it was reported that involvement of U.S. hospitals in local agriculture has dramatically increased: Nearly 80 percent of hospitals nationwide hosted a farmers’ market or community-supported agriculture program on-site, and about 60 percent bought food directly from a local farm.

"We know our patients can't get well on a package of pudding with 50 ingredients and few vitamins and minerals. They need food rich in micronutrients. Those are best prepared from fresh food," says Lisa McDowell, MS, RD, CNSD.

McDowell, a registered dietitian, is manager of the inpatient clinical nutrition department and helps run the farm-to-tray program. McDowell, farm manager Daniel Bair and Dave Raymond, service delivery leader for planning, share farm oversight.

Bair almost single-handedly runs the four-acre farm. It debuted in April 2010 with a single hoop house with a 300-square-foot footprint. A second hoop house was added later that year. Both hoop houses were built by volunteers.

"Dan is the work horse. He is such a hard worker. He has a few volunteers. One volunteer opens and closes the hoop houses on weekends," McDowell says. (To volunteer, call Bair at 734-712-HOOP)

For now, Bair plants, tends, weeds, waters and harvests everything in the two hoop houses and an outdoor lot. Another local farmer raises field crops, such as winter wheat, hay and sunflowers, on another 11-acre plot.

"Dan is very strategic about plants. We focus on patient food. We've added different greens into our soups, the salad bar, the taco bar, in pasta and sandwiches. Everywhere we can make a splash, we try to do that," McDowell says.

"Patient reaction has been really nice - great feedback. They like trays that have a lot of color. It's an opportunity to teach our patients what a healthy meal looks like."

The nutrition department (they call themselves "the farmacy," McDowell says) works closely with the chefs. "They're innovative. They want to serve fresh food and they like to serve a seasonal menu. They have a great relationship with Dan."

Over the course of the year, the farm grows chard, kale, root vegetables, salad mix, garlic, carrots, cilantro and radishes.
"Carrots have been hugely popular. We have white and purple scallions, collards, head lettuce - typical winter crops. One hoop house is all tomatoes in the summer, five varieties,' Bair says.

The other hoop house will be all peppers in the summer including habeneros and high-yield red and green bell peppers. Easy to pick, easy to wash, Bair says. There's also an outdoor community garden with 10 plots this year for staff and an outpatient mental health clinic. The outdoor field grows garlic, herbs, kale and Swiss chard.

"We're trying to streamline, to focus on a few things we can grow well and the kitchen is willing to use. I'm planting four times as much garlic as last year," Bair boasts.

The farm also has several beehives, part of a partnership with the Ypsilanti Food Co-op's Local Honey Project. The hives provide honey for sale at the Co-op and training for would-be beekeepers.

"It's been great to have tiny livestock on the farm. Volunteers manage the hives and harvest the honey," Bair explains.

Bair conducted a tour of the farm for people attending the Local Food Summit this past April. At the time, the farm was between winter and spring crops, although there were herbs and salad greens, as well as bulb flowers on hand. The farm is not certified but it is using organic methods, Bair says.

"I have a very low budget. The hospital is paying to have this here. We have some revenue and we're working towards break-even," Bair says.

He spends all day Tuesday picking produce and flowers for the Wednesday Farmer's Market held in the hospital's main lobby. Anyone can shop the market (hours are 11am–1pm and 3pm-5pm) but its customers are mostly hospital staff members, patients and visitors. It's currently on hiatus but will return in June. After that, to see what's on offer each week, visit the farm's blog at realtimefarms.com.

There's a growing campaign for hospitals to "take the pledge." That's the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge committing a health care provider to providing local, nutritious and sustainable food. Saint Joe's has signed on, McDowell says.

It's sponsored by an international coalition of hospitals, medical people and others who believe good food is an essential part of good health. "Good" food includes responsible farming and sourcing.

Although hospital farms are rare, St. Joe has inspired other area hospitals. Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield and Allegiance Hospital in Jackson have come to look and may consider similar efforts, Bair says.

In addition, Governor Rick Snyder has asked all large state institutions to commit to purchasing 20 percent of all their food locally by 2020. At St. Joe alone, the scope is enormous.

"We're a 560-bed hospital. On any given day, we serve 1,500 patient meals plus all the employee meals - it's huge. We're feeding on a grand scale," McDowell says.

"Patient meals are one of the most compelling things we can do [with the farm's produce]," Bair says.

Recently the kitchen prepared 400 patient meals with a side of farm-grown collard greens. The chefs also prepared house-made spicy turkey sausage for white bean-kale soup.

What's next?

"Our future objectives are to involve patients in the farm when we can, with opportunities for our seniors and rehab patients. We're (also) going to be starting an eating disorders program," McDowell adds.

It would be splendid to expand the program to include more farm-fresh food, McDowell says. Although there are many wonderful farms in Michigan, the produce isn't ready to use when it's delivered, she explains. Produce must be triple-washed and ready to go in the pot when it's delivered to the kitchen.

If institutions are to hit Snyder's locavore benchmarks, it'll probably mean a lot more hoop houses and farm plots dotting medical center grounds. Which sounds pretty cool to us.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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