BOSTON — High atop the roof of a hospital power plant in the middle of the city, you’ll find something unexpected: A 7,000-square-foot oasis with a lush carpet of green, rows upon rows of mesclun, kale, rainbow chard and a sea of plump green and red tomatoes.
Farm manager Lindsay Allen is on her hands and knees, cutting sprays of leafy greens and arugula and packing them into boxes. These particular greens will go to the Boston Medical Center kitchen, where they will be prepared for use in the cafeteria salad bar.
Other times, vegetables from the farm are sent to the hospital’s preventive food pantry, where low-income patients can pick up food items that meet their nutritional needs. Some will go to the demonstration kitchen in the cafeteria, where Tracy Burg, a registered dietitian and nurse, will teach patients how to use them to prepare tasty and healthy meals.
And some will even make it onto patients’ meal trays.
Boston Medical Center is one of the burgeoning number of hospitals growing their own produce. For reasons ranging from increasing sustainability to encouraging healthier eating to strengthening community connections, these medical facilities have set up actual farms on their grounds, hiring farm managers to oversee the crops and inviting the community to help with harvesting.
“There is an increasing trend in hospital farms,” said Stacia Clinton, the national program director for Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care program, which advises hospitals on ways to provide sustainable and nutritious food. “There’s a greater demand now for people to know where their food is coming from, and hospitals are looking for ways to connect people to their food more directly.”
Based on surveys administered by Practice Greenhealth, the membership arm of Health Care Without Harm, the percentage of its partner hospitals nationwide with farms or gardens has doubled since 2008, from 13% to 26% in 2016.
Boston Medical Center kicked off its inaugural season this past spring. The goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of procuring food from elsewhere and provide “local, organic food that’s grown right on our premises,” according to Allen.
By the end of the year, the garden will have produced 5,000 pounds of produce, including eggplants, green beans, squash, radishes, carrots and 802 pounds of tomatoes. The farm even has two beehives, painted in bright colors by pediatric patients.
“Next spring, we will have honey,” Allen said.
Other hospitals like Seattle Children’s Hospital have had a small garden for years but have recently sized up.
For more than 10 years, the garden at Seattle Children’s was “just herbs,” said Gina Sadowski, the manager of production and operations at the hospital’s nutrition department. But over the past few years, the garden has expanded to include a dizzying variety of vegetables and fruits, including strawberries, blackberries, golden currants, kohlrabi, snap peas, rhubarb, watermelon radishes and more than a thousand pounds of tomatoes.
“We want to increase 20% every year in our sourcing of local and sustainable foods,” Sadowski said. “And the garden is certainly local and sustainable.”
The farm’s produce ends up in the hospital café in the form of salad bar items or mixed vegetables behind the hot serving line. Tomatoes can show up in patient meals as marinara sauce.
Sadowski said she is working with the kitchen staff to incorporate more of the farm’s produce in patient menus.
“We have goals around reducing sodium content in our foods,” she said. The garden will help the hospital do that by providing a source of unprocessed, fresh, organic produce.
Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa., has similar goals of reducing sodium and teaching patients to do the same. In the spring of 2016, it launched the half-acre Delema G. Deaver Wellness Farm to raise awareness about diet and nutrition.
"We were delving deeper into the health care needs in the community, and the major issues we were seeing were chronic diseases like hypertension and obesity,” said Chinwe Onyekere, associate administrator for the medical center. “All of these have a direct relationship with nutrition and diet.”
Using produce from the Deaver Farm, Lankenau has instituted regular pop-up farmers’ markets and cooking demonstrations in several of its outpatient practices. Patients can take what vegetables they want at no cost.
“The patients bring the produce into the appointment with their doctor,” Onyekere said. “The provider now has a tactile way to engage the patient around the importance of nutrition and how to better control their diabetes or hypertension.”
Sixty to 70% of Lankenau’s patients are on Medicaid, Onyekere said, and some of them face barriers to accessing fresh fruit and vegetables, whether it be cost or lack of availability.
The farm not only provides sustainably grown, organic vegetables to patients, but the farmers’ markets and cooking demonstrations serve as a gateway for providers to have a more nuanced conversation about patients’ food needs at home.
“The farm has provided us an opportunity to really re-imagine how we deliver health care and the role health providers can play in improving outcomes of their patients,” Onyekere said.
Follow Sarah Toy on Twitter: @sarahtoy17