Farm programs keep growing at St. Joe's hospitals in Michigan

April 1, 2022

Gardens complement care by offering nutrition courses and therapeutic opportunities


The farm that opened in spring 2021 on the campus of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Michigan, is right outside the entrance for medical staff.


Shannon Striebich, the hospital's president and senior vice president of operations for Trinity Health Michigan, says the farm's gardens give workers a bit of serenity as they come and go. She hopes they also nourish the idea of nutrition and green space as aspects of health and healing.

Amina Alnaji, a volunteer, picks eggplant off the vine at the farm at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Michigan, last fall. Opened in spring 2021, the 1.3-acre farm is a satellite of the 12-year-old farm at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.
Detroit Free Press/Kimberly P. Mitchell

"We've been pretty intentional about creating a space that's beautiful, that anybody and everybody can come and be a part of, that people can volunteer in, that people can use to gain access to a better lifestyle through diet," Striebich says.

The farm produces fruits and vegetables and gifts them to staff and patients. It has a flower garden and during set hours visitors can snip blossoms for bouquets. Its operators work with other hospital staff on nutrition and gardening programs that complement patient care.

Heart of a wellness initiative
The 1.3-acre farm is a satellite of one that opened in 2010 at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, the largest of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System's five hospitals in Southeastern Michigan. The system, commonly known as St. Joe's, is part of Trinity Health.

Amanda Sweetman, director of farming and healthy lifestyles at Trinity Health Michigan, oversees the farms at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital. She says their mission is "to grow a healthy community by empowering people through food, education and relationships."

The original farm was established under Rob Casalou, who as then-president of the Ann Arbor hospital recognized how lifestyle is a major factor in health and wanted a means to demonstrate to the community the importance of good nutrition to good health. Casalou is now president and chief executive of Trinity Health Michigan and Southeast regions. The Farm at St. Joe's won CHA's Achievement Citation in 2013.

In an article about the farm that he wrote for the March-April 2019 issue of the CHA journal Health Progress, he says: "The Farm at St. Joe's serves as the heart of our wellness initiative, a place to grow a healthy community and catalyze positive changes to the ways we live, eat and restore ourselves."

Amanda Sweetman, director of farming and healthy lifestyles at Trinity Health Michigan, oversees both hospital farms. She says their purpose extends well beyond the crops they produce. "Our mission today is to grow a healthy community by empowering people through food, education and relationships," she says.

She is modeling the programs at the Oakland farm on those at the older, well-established one in Ann Arbor. That operation donated more than 6,300 pounds of produce to 3,600 medical workers and 1,300 patients in 2020.

Support for family farms
In its first year, the Oakland farm started a collaborative farm share program like the one at St. Joe's Ann Arbor that supports small community farms. Participants get a box of fresh produce grown on local farms every week for 36 weeks during the growing season. The produce varies as crops ripen, with tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, beets and herbs among the typical contents.

Sweetman says the Ann Arbor farm share started with 30 subscribers and has grown to more than 1,100. The hospital's farm program subsidizes memberships for people who can't pay the full price of $875 for a full season pass and $476 for a half season of 18 weeks. In 2020, it covered or assisted with memberships for just over 100 people.

Last summer, a woman getting federal food assistance stopped by as Sweetman and the farm manager were packing produce boxes. When they found out that the woman was food insecure, they immediately signed her up for the food share program.

"She got to go home with a box of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms," Sweetman says.

Those who get the food boxes aren't the only beneficiaries of the collaborative programs.

Dane Mazzaro, a volunteer, helps winterize a farm bed with compost at the farm at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital last October. The farm operation includes a food share program in partnership with local farmers that provides weekly boxes of fresh produce to subscribers.
Detroit Free Press/Kimberly P. Mitchell

Sweetman says the programs serve as financial anchors for small-scale agriculture, giving family farmers a foundation to build from and scale their operations to provide locally grown produce across their communities. In 2020 the Ann Arbor farm share generated $200,000 for local farms.

"It's a really easy, high-reward way for farms to move food," Sweetman says. "We are one of the largest consistent wholesale buyers in our community. People have started businesses because they know that they'll be able to sell to the farm."

Complement to patient care
The farms have partnerships inside the hospitals as well. The hospitals' electronic medical records have a referral path to the farms. So, for example, a doctor could direct patients newly diagnosed with diabetes to the farm for some fresh produce and a lesson on what foods they should consider including in their diet and how to prepare those foods.

Liz Tylander, manager of the farm at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor in Michigan, moves a crate of fresh produce for delivery to the hospital as part of a program that provides fresh produce to patients. In 2020, the farm donated more than 6,300 pounds of produce to 3,600 medical workers and 1,300 patients.
Detroit Free Press/Kimberly P. Mitchell

At St. Joe's Oakland, the hospital's inpatient rehabilitation team huddled with the farm staff over the summer to discuss creating garden spaces where patients can perform tasks such as planting and pruning as part of their therapy.

The Ann Arbor farm already has a similar program for patients with traumatic brain injuries. That farm also has a wheelchair-accessible hoop house, or indoor growing space, where patients and clinicians can garden.

Sweetman hopes to soon partner with community groups to assemble and deliver "good food boxes" to patients who have chronic health conditions and are food insecure. The deliveries would come every other week and include a bag of locally grown produce and a box of pantry staples.

While each farm has a small paid staff who oversee the agricultural work and related programs, Sweetman says they welcome and rely on volunteers from within the hospitals and their communities. And while the farms have gotten seed money through grants from Trinity Health, they rely on community support for funding.

Mission alignment
The St. Joe's Oakland farm is in the footprint of a patient tower that was torn down several years ago. Striebich says the farm and gardens are part of a deliberate effort in recent years to create a rejuvenating environment in and around the hospital.

"We've largely rebuilt the campus and the notion of creating sacred spaces that people can heal in has been kind of a guiding principle," she says.

Striebich says the farm and the programs it supports align with needs identified in community benefit assessments, such as food insecurity, and deliver on the mission of Trinity Health to be a transforming healing presence in the communities it serves.

"I believe in the idea of a traditional hospital becoming a partner in keeping people healthy and, frankly, out of the hospital," she says. "It is different and energizing and unique and yet consistent with our mission and vision as a Catholic health care system."

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