A VIP tour is making its way through the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Along with other points of interest at this world-class facility is an urban garden with dozens of brightly painted raised beds growing an assortment of herbs and vegetables. The Director of Culinary Operations, Miles McMath, makes sure to answer questions for his special guests. He also makes time for an interview just for Flour Sack Mama blog visitors.
Why grow a garden here with organic practices, I ask McMath? The award-winning chef answers simply, “It’s the perfect opportunity to eat real food.” In many ways, the St. Jude garden is just like yours or mine if we’re striving for organic standards. In other ways, it uniquely fits the needs of the community St. Jude serves. The famed research hospital striving to help children survive cancer and other catastrophic diseases employs thousands of people, including 2,500 researchers from around the globe. Food service provided at Kay Kafe (not just another cafeteria) needs to meet a diverse set of tastes with the freshest food possible. Kafe customers include patients and families who are provided the best meals possible to meet their needs during visits for medical treatments — those for patients and a caregiver provided absolutely free.
McMath explains, “Dealing with having almost 4,000 employees here, you have sick patients, compromised immune systems, we need to provide them with the freshest, best food available.”
St. Jude employee Dusty Beel is setting onions in a raised bed, while potatoes have recently been planted. Tiny red and green cabbages are taking hold in their own spaces. The culinary director insists I taste a freshly picked asparagus shoot that crunches like nothing I’ve ever found at a grocery store.
The vegetables growing here get their nutrients from soils built from on-site plant and worm composting plus carefully-chosen pro-mix. The garden lot regularly has its soil tested for heavy metals and more. As an extra precaution against introducing unwanted bacteria, this garden does not allow any manure compost.
The garden manager has a culinary background, and Jerri Meyers is proud that the garden is growing produce with the most sustainable, organic methods possible. She explains that conventional pesticides are not necessary if best organic practices are used. The garden’s professional managers oversee volunteers who often are off-duty St. Jude employees from other departments.
Greenhouses and hoop houses help the garden provide some greens year-around, while summer offers new opportunities for organic vegetables to thrive. “We have about 20 beds that we’ll be planting in nothing but tomatoes,” shares Meyers. “So we are gonna have some tomatoes at St. Jude this summer, hopefully.” Best growing practices like irrigation and staking the plants to keep them off the ground should help the plants thrive without conventional inputs. “We’re going to try really hard to add just that right mix of water and sunshine to get great big tomatoes!” Around 400 tomato plants grew in the garden last summer, creating a cost savings over purchasing organic tomatoes elsewhere. The garden uses non-genetically modified, open pollinated seeds that are often heirloom varieties.
McMath has strict standards when sourcing additional produce for Kay Kafe as well as other foods. The St. Jude food philosophy favors more local, sustainably grown foods. McMath prefers to visit a farm in person before making a purchasing decision. He’s even found a source for grass-fed beef found in the hamburgers they serve. St. Jude’s purchasing standards have boosted the local farm market community and their garden has become an educational center.
While St. Jude provides the best produce available regionally to meet demand, the short distance from garden to kitchen is ideal. I asked McMath what he thinks of nutritional value of fresh-picked garden food. “I think it’s tremendous! I think once a vegetable is pulled, the clock starts ticking, the nutritional value starts depleting. We’ve come over here at 6 in the morning and picked cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes and had them in our wild greens station that day. Not only the flavor, the texture, the color, the nutritional value is incredible!”