Innovative hospital farm provides fresh, nutritious food to patients

St. Luke's University Farm
© St Luke's University Farm -- Farmer Lynn harvests lettuce

Nutrition plays such an important role in personal health that it makes sense to prioritize the quality of diet in hospitals. The question is, why as has it taken so long?

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

When my mother underwent a major surgery, she begged me to come cook for her as soon as she got out of the hospital. The food she received while in recovery was so tasteless, stale, and seemingly devoid of nutrients that she thought she would suffer from malnutrition before recovering from the surgery. I stayed with her for weeks, cooking meal after meal with produce from her huge kitchen garden, helping to heal her with nutritious and delicious food.

“That’s why I recovered as quickly as I did,” she told me four years later. “I don’t know how hospitals can get away with serving such awful food to sick patients – the very people who need nourishing meals more than ever.”

One hospital has caught on to this basic concept, realizing that patients should be well fed in order to recover better and to learn about the importance of good nutrition. St. Luke’s University Hospital partnered with the Rodale Institute (a groundbreaking leader in organic agriculture research) to create an ‘hospital farm’ on its Anderson campus in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The farm just celebrated its first anniversary. Now, in 2015, the farm will double in size from five to 10 acres; increase produce offered from 12 to 30 varieties; provide more than 45,000 pounds of vegetables overall; and continue to be used by cafeteria staff to feed hospital patients. Baskets of produce are sent home with select new mothers upon discharge from the maternity ward. There is even a weekly farmer’s market held in the cafeterias where staff, patients, and visitors can purchase fresh produce.

Introducing fresh, local, seasonal produce into hospital food service is a fabulous idea, but there are challenges when it comes to implementation, as explained in this article by Civil Eats.

First, there are the obvious challenges of learning how to run a farm when an organization’s specialty is healthcare, rather than agriculture. The farm has been expensive to start up, and likely won’t break even until 2016, but Anderson campus president Ed Nawrocki believes it’s a worthwhile investment. “Our mission is to provide great healthcare, and part of that is educating patients about the benefits of a plant-based, organic diet.”

Second, using fresh produce grown on site requires a major shift in the way food is prepared in the hospital’s kitchens. Food staff has to learn new cooking techniques, which are much more involved than the typical heating and reheating of prepared foods.

“When we order produce from a food service provider, it comes peeled and chopped and portioned; all our staff has to do is open the package and add it to the recipe. Cooking with fresh foods from our farm is much more labor intense,” says Lisa McDowell, director of nutrition and wellness.

Nawrocki says he hopes this model of farm-to-table food will be scalable and replicated throughout the country. That would be smart, as access to healthy food in hospital would go a long ways toward helping patients in recovery, aiding hospitals to become more self-sufficient and sustainable, and exemplifying good nutrition in practice.

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