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Farm at St. Joe's cultivates community commitment to healthy living

By BETSY TAYLOR

To teach about the importance of healthy lifestyles in southeast Michigan, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System is building community not just at its hospitals, but at its farm. The Farm at St. Joe's on the 364-acre grounds of St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor is a place where planting vegetables is a therapy for veterans recovering from  traumatic brain injury; where stroke and rehab patients calm their minds and improve dexterity tending elevated beds designed for the ease of patients using wheelchairs and walkers; where college students studying dietetics harvest produce and plan seasonal menus for the hospital's patients; and where the hospital has been able to step away from the financial and ecological costs of maintaining a manicured lawn by growing alfalfa and supporting natural meadows.

The farm, which uses organic methods, provides patients, volunteers and visitors an experiential way to understand the link between fresh air, exercise, fresh food, good nutrition and good health.

That innovative, synergistic approach to healing and wellness has garnered the Farm at St. Joe's CHA's 2013 Achievement Citation. The award was presented June 3 at the Catholic Health Assembly in Anaheim, Calif. CHA said that St. Joseph's investment in the farm demonstrates  the hospital's core values and mission "to heal body, mind and spirit, to improve the health of our communities and to steward the resources entrusted to us," all in the spirit of the Gospel.

The farm operates year-round with a manager and two additional paid employees. A legion of community volunteers tend to chores in the fields and in three hoop houses,  greenhouses designed to capture the heat from the sun and permit produce to be grown even in the winter.

Rob Casalou, St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor's president and chief executive, said that before the farm got started, administrators and staff realized they needed to do more to promote community wellness.

"Our overall food program, and I'm talking about what we fed our staff in the cafeteria, what we fed our patients, and whether we were truly a symbol of health in this community relative to our nutrition standards, we were not satisfied with it," he said, adding that the hospital wasn't the role model it wanted to be in educating staff, patients and community members about health and nutrition. By creating the farm in 2010, the hospital raised awareness of the trade-offs involved in choosing highly processed convenience foods over fresh foods, and it wove the natural beauty and bounty of its campus into its therapeutic programs. "The farm became the beacon, the symbol of what we stood for," he said.
The Farm at St. Joe's provides fresh produce for use in patients' meals and in the hospital's Market Café, which has replaced its cafeteria. Fried food is out, and kale is in. Dave Raymond, director of planning and design for Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, said, "We actually have an education board before you enter the Market Café, instructing you on healthy choices and how to look at the menu and look at the nutritional value in the selections we present that day."

Fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers are offered for sale at a farmers' market inside the hospital. Lisa McDowell, the system's director of clinical nutrition, works with clinical interns who create healthy meals for patients as well as recipe cards and food samples for the farmers' market to encourage people to try things they might not otherwise eat.

More than 10,000 pounds of food have been harvested on the farm since planting began, with more than 3,200 pounds donated to food bank programs. The farm provides volunteer opportunities for school groups and adults, who get exercise as they assist with plantings and learn gardening skills.

The hospital collaborated with the Eisenhower Center, which provides outpatient services and residential programs for those recovering from traumatic brain injury, to open the first handicapped- accessible clinical hoop house in the nation in May. Eisenhower Center and St. Joseph rehabilitation patients, who are often recovering from stroke or injury, work at raised vegetable beds and at rotating planter boxes which feature a Ferris wheel-like design that allows a person seated in a wheelchair to bring plants within easy reach.  

Christine Myran, the Eisenhower Center's vice president of programs, said "agritherapy" helps shorten length of hospital stays and fights depression in rehab patients. "No matter how much you're injured, there is always something you can contribute on a farm," she said.

 Hospital officials said they've heard anecdotally from employees who say they are eating more nutritiously than they used to. It's not uncommon to hear conversations in the hospital halls about the latest happenings, and plantings, at the farm.

The farm and farmers' market make the health care campus inviting to community members. McDowell said, "We have regular customers who don't have family members in the hospital, but they just come in to our farmers' market because they love that the greens are not treated with pesticides and that they're freshly picked that morning before market, and they just taste so great."

Casalou said the farm has changed the mood and culture at the hospital: "Whether people realize it or not, when you eat healthier and are active, you feel better and you're happier." He added, "The light on this campus is much brighter, I think."