Saint Joseph Ann Arbor sows produce seeds to grow nutrition awareness

August 1, 2011


Within the past decade, farmers' markets have sprouted inside the lobbies and in parking lots of hospitals around the U.S.

But Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Michigan has taken the trend toward promoting local fresh food as a source of good nutrition one step further — it operates its own farm on four acres of its 364-acre Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor campus. The hospital is located between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

The Farm at St. Joe's is a public statement of the hospital's commitment to healthy living, says Robert Casalou, the hospital's president and chief executive.

"It's an opportunity to say to the community, 'We're going to grow food that's healthy and we're going to use it in our own organization, and we're going to donate it to others,'" he says. "We can't feed the world, but we're absolutely making a very big statement."

In the spring of 2010, a plow pulled by two draft horses began turning over ground that was once farmland but hadn't been tilled in decades, not since the hospital moved there in 1977. Hank Beekley, a local farmer, has volunteered his team and his time to do all of the plowing by hand so far, says Lisa McDowell. A registered dietician and the hospital's head of nutrition, McDowell works closely with the farm project.

In addition to farming the fields, Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor built two 30- by 96-foot hoop houses — essentially greenhouses with clear plastic roofs — that extend the growing season and keep the hospital in fresh greens all winter long, says McDowell.

Dan Bair, another local farmer, tends the crops as a contract employee and he runs the weekly farmers' market that is held year-round in the hospital's lobby.

The farm isn't certified as organic because that requires a petition process and fees, but it doesn't use any pesticides or synthetic sprays, says McDowell. The hospital recently bought and released 60,000 lady bugs as a natural way to combat aphids and white flies.

"You can imagine what our purchasing department thought about that PO (purchase order)," adds McDowell.

Potatoes, garlic, eggplant, carrots, beets, broccoli, herbs and numerous varieties of winter squash grow in the fields. In the hospital's hoop houses, there's baby spinach, Swiss chard, kale and collards, peppers and tomatoes. Last fall there was more produce "than we knew what to do with,'' says McDowell. "We had tomatoes until December 1st, when we pulled the last (plant) out."

Even in the cold Michigan winter, on a sunny day, the temperature in the unheated hoop houses can reach 90 degrees, but it can dip below freezing at night. McDowell attests that greens actually taste sweeter if they freeze over and thaw before being picked.

Waste not
Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor sells its produce at its farmers' market, and it serves it in its cafeteria and to patients, as spinach soup, for instance.

For staffers who can't make it to the weekly market, Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor also stocks lettuce and spinach at its convenience store called "Joe's Grab 'n Go."

Several women religious who work at Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor have identified needy families seeking fresh produce for their loved ones undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, and the hospital sets aside food for them, says McDowell.

Studies show that antioxidants and other chemical compounds found in fresh fruits and vegetables benefit cancer patients, McDowell says, but it can be hard for individuals who live in a low-income area to find fresh produce in neighborhood stores. Fresh food choices are more plentiful in Ann Arbor, but there are "food deserts" in Ypsilanti where fresh produce is hard to find, adds McDowell. Where it is available, fresh produce can be expensive, especially for people who are trying to stretch food stamps to feed their families.

The hospital donates any leftover vegetables to Food Gatherers, a local charity which distributes food to the needy that would otherwise go to waste. In its first year with the farm, Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor donated over a thousand pounds, says McDowell.

Tulips and honey 
The Farm at St. Joe's recently added its second bee hive, hoping to eventually nurture enough honeybees to assist with local pollination, says McDowell.

This spring, hospital staffers eagerly awaited the color burst of more than 5,000 tulip bulbs that bloomed throughout May. Brownies, Girl Scouts and students from two nearby Catholic elementary schools helped pick the blooms, and the bouquets they yielded sold out each week at the market.

The farm relies on volunteer labor. In addition to the plowman's preparing the fields, volunteers helped erect the hoop houses, manning more than 50 ropes to hoist the plastic covering over the hoops. Today, employees and the public pitch in to help with weeding and watering.

Students from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan do farmwork and contribute to hospital-sponsored nutrition projects, such as developing patient handouts citing the benefits of fruits and vegetables and educating customers about produce at the hospital's farmers' market, says McDowell.

"I have so many students who call me who want to volunteer,'' she says. "There are so many jobs to do on a farm.''

The hospital wants to hire Bair, the farm's crop tender, fulltime, and it has applied for a grant to do so. Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor also is seeking grant money to buy a tractor to supplement the plow horses, says McDowell.

The farm has yet to break even, although it hopes to reach that goal by next year, says McDowell.

"We're definitely not making money," she says. "It's more like we're putting our money where our mouth is. We're preaching wellness and good health. We're investing in prevention."

By executive order, fries are out, greens are in

One of the first things Robert Casalou did after becoming president and chief executive at Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and two of its sister hospitals in 2008 was to visit Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor's cafeteria. He wanted to see what the cafeteria was serving its employees and patients. He found an abundance of highly processed, salty, high-fat fare.

In order to create a healthier menu, Casalou had all of the cafeteria's fryers removed. Gone were the chicken nuggets, and in their place were lightly breaded chicken breasts, as well as homemade soups made of fresh ingredients.

The changes did not go unremarked upon by the hospital's employees, who mourned the loss of their favorite foods, especially French fries.

Currently, the hospital's cafeteria is closed while it undergoes a renovation, but when it reopens, it will continue to serve low-sodium, lower-fat food, says Lisa McDowell, the hospital's head of nutrition. "We're committed to meeting the American Heart Association guidelines" for healthy eating, says McDowell, who adds that the new cafeteria plans to provide nutritious food that's also tasty.

After 20 years in the health care field, all of them in Catholic institutions, Casalou says he feels strongly that the profession needs to do more to educate the public about healthy eating in order to help people avoid certain lifestyle-related diseases.

Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor would be remiss in its mission if it failed to focus on prevention, health and wellness for its patients, says Casalou. "We value family, we value life,'' he says. "We look at the entire person. That's why I've always valued Catholic institutions."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.