Hospital Farms for Better Health with Rodale Institute
Greek physician Hippocrates is famously attributed with telling us, “…let food be thy medicine.” Yet Western medicine has been slow to embrace the simplicity of this wisdom. Finally, US physicians can write “prescriptions” for discharged patients that include healthy doses of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. A Pennsylvania medical system is going a step farther by growing its own organic vegetables on a farm next door to one of its hospitals.
St. Luke’s University Health Network has partnered with Rodale Institute to establish a model organic farm at its Anderson Campus. They’ve started providing patients fresh lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and more from the professionally managed farm — all grown to organic standards without toxic, persistent pesticides or petrochemical fertilizers. Food vendor Sodexo is facilitating the use of the locally grown food that is also available to hospital employees and visitors.
“Numerous studies prove that organic fruits and vegetables offer many advantages over conventionally-grown foods, such as: increased amounts of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants, which reduce incidence of heart disease and some cancers; and a lowered risk of common conditions such as cancer, heart disease, allergies and hyperactivity in children,” said Bonnie Coyle, MD, MS, Director of Community Health, St. Luke’s University Health Network.
The organic farm project is all about healthy people and communities. Yet, what people have noticed so far is the fresh-picked taste! “People in the hospital are talking about how the lettuce tastes like lettuce. They can tell the difference,” shared Farm Project Manager Lynn Trizna.
The organic vegetable farmer notes that fresh taste also hints at higher nutrient levels. “You don’t have to lose nutrition in transportation. It’s there for patients to enjoy. It’s educational as well. Hopefully, these patients will get a taste of what good, organic, local produce is like and then continue to grow it themselves or support the local farms.”
St. Luke’s sought out Rodale Institute for the farming project because of the nonprofit’s stellar reputation for decades of research on organic farming methods. Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial famously shows more than 30 years of side-by-side comparisons to prove that organic farming can meet or exceed conventional yields. The Institute founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale focuses on healthy soils, people and communities.
Trizna shared that organic farming calls for special attention to the soil health, plants and pests. Farm management doesn’t include the quick fixes of chemical farming. “I’m willing to hand pick off all these potato larvae because I know that spraying them could hurt my soil, hurt myself, hurt my customers. It does take a certain work ethic, but I think it’s worth it.”
“We think that for a long time food is the problem related to many illnesses,” said Rodale Institute Executive Director “Coach” Mark Smallwood. “And now we have an answer that food can actually be the medicine for these same diseases, but it has to be grown organically.” While the organic menu won’t necessarily replace conventional medicine at the hospital, it is becoming an integral part of the approach to wellness.
The St. Luke’s Rodale Institute Organic Farm has started small this growing season, farming a dozen crops on five acres. It has room to expand into hundreds of acres with even more full-time farmers and eventually serve food to all six St. Luke’s hospitals. The previously conventional farmland is being transitioned to earn USDA Organic certification within three years as well as meeting requirements for the GAPS diet. Surplus produce could stock a Farmers’ Market.
St. Luke’s Anderson President Ed Nawrocki said, “By providing patients with locally-grown organic produce, St. Luke’s is showing a commitment to the environment and promoting the health of its patients and the community.”
The farm will eventually offer teaching opportunities, with the potential to be a learning center for physicians interested in nutrition. Both Rodale Institute and St. Luke’s will gather data as this model project grows.
“We’re very excited about this,” Smallwood expressed, “This is another one of the models that we can scale up and replicate. How many more hospitals can do what they’re doing here?”