The community garden at Arkansas Children’s Hospital nourishes not only crops but also hungry families.
The Little Rock hospital collaborated with the local university and community organizations to open the garden in 2016. “We wanted to engage the community and to get produce in the hands of those who need it most,” says Scott Allen, the hospital’s director of community outreach.
The 8,000-square foot garden grows more than 15 types of fruits and vegetables, and all the produce goes to Helping Hand of Greater Little Rock, a local food pantry. In addition to supplying food, Helping Hand provides clothing and limited financial assistance to 1,500 needy families each month in Pulaski County. The county is the largest in the state with nearly 393,000 residents and includes Little Rock.
Helping Hand last year retrofitted a school bus to look like a grocery store on wheels. It makes one stop in the community. Every week, the mobile pantry brings 10 sacks of the garden’s fresh produce to the hospital’s campus. Volunteers distribute bags of the groceries to needy families when patients are discharged.
Spinach, beets, radishes, lettuce, snap peas and onions from the garden supplement the mobile pantry’s weekly distribution of groceries like rice, cereal and canned goods. Some 500 families received groceries last year.
“These families are struggling financially,” says Gale Priddy, executive director of Helping Hand. “I had one mother hug me and say, ‘I didn’t know what I was going to cook tonight. You don’t know what this means to me.’”
The garden has provided more than 2,600 pounds of food this year to Helping Hands. “The need is staggering and we want to do our part,” Allen says.
“We’re thankful we have this relationship with the hospital,” says Helping Hand’s Priddy. “We work together as much as we can helping those in need.”
The garden is a collaboration of the hospital, the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI), Arkansas Garden Corps, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and National Park Service.
The Arkansas Garden Corps manages the garden, with financial support from the hospital. Hospital and neighborhood volunteers help with maintenance.
Arkansas Children’s is the only children’s hospital in the state and treats patients from all over Arkansas.
Plans for the garden began in 2011, when Judith Weber, director of ACRI’s obesity prevention institute, approached the hospital about building an education garden that also would feed area children. Weber led a research project that surveyed families in the hospital’s emergency department for several years, and found that more than 20% reported some level of difficulty in getting food.
“Good nutrition is the underpinning for good health, so hospital investment in improving the nutritional health of their patients is a win for everyone,” she says.
Weber also conducted a study in 2013 – funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – that found school-based gardens increased children’s fruit and vegetable intake, physical activity and even their science test scores. “We anticipate extending these effects to hospital-based community gardens as well,” she says.
A recent AHA report, “Food Insecurity and the Role of Hospitals,” looked at the impact of food insecurity on communities, and cited Arkansas Children’s initiatives as an example of how hospitals can step in to help.
Food insecurity is defined as the inability for someone to have consistent access to healthy food. It has been linked to health issues, including chronic illness and childhood development challenges.
Through a partnership with USDA, the Arkansas Children’s distributed more than 21,000 free lunches last year and more than 60,000 to children since the program began in 2013, making it – according to the AHA – the nation’s first hospital to serve free meals year-round.
Among other initiatives, the hospital hosts cooking classes in local schools, libraries and other venues, where chefs and nutritionists educate residents about eating healthy food. The hospital worked with the state’s health department to establish an on-site Women, Infants and Children’s office to encourage families to apply for benefits, like federal nutrition programs, during their hospital stay or office visit.
The hospital also screens patients for food insecurity at two of its most heavily used health clinics. Nearly 30% of respondents last year were classified as food insecure. Nurses provide information about community resources – like Helping Hand – to food-insecure patients and gives each of them a bag full of groceries.
As health care delivery moves toward a population health management focus, Arkansas Children’s Allen says hospitals and health systems need to recognize the significance of addressing determinants of health.
“We need to go back to the source of the problem and start framing these issues in ways that hospitals didn’t think enough about in the past,” he says. “We’ve got to address the issues through these social determinants and think of how we can contribute to a healthier community, a healthier culture and a healthier generation.”