“Food is medicine,” says Bill Monahan, a registered nurse and outreach coordinator for 19-bed Grace Cottage Hospital in Townsend, Vt. The hospital buys nearly 40% of its food from local sources to provide a more nutritious patient diet.
But it’s not just people inside the hospital who benefit from this farm-fresh philosophy. The hospital is sharing its good nutrition with needy families in this rural community of about 1,500 people.
The hospital’s “ton of tomatoes” project encourages gardeners and farmers to grow 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, which are processed, and then frozen for distribution this winter as sauce, stew and soup for food-insecure residents.
Monahan says a bad local crop of tomatoes may limit the total output to about 1,000 pounds. But he says the hospital plans to meet the 2,000-pound goal next year and extend the program to other fruits and vegetables.
“People need nutritious food to keep them healthy,” Monahan says. “It comes down to knowledge, access and affordability, and that’s where community collaboration is essential.”
Hospital CEO Roger Albee, a former Vermont agriculture secretary, says “it’s all about preventable care, it’s all about primary care, it’s all about connecting to the community.”
Promoting healthier eating inside and outside the hospital’s wall is a growing trend as health care focuses more on prevention and the link between preventable illnesses – like obesity, diabetes and heart disease – and diet.
For example, Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock earlier this month made its patient menu more healthful by removing hot dogs – the number one choking risk for children and a food linked to colon cancer. Arkansas is in the so-called “colon cancer corridor,” a cluster of nine states with high death rates for colorectal cancer.
Providing tasty, plant-based food options for patients aligns with the hospital’s efforts to promote a culture of wellness within the community. The hospital collaborated last year with the local university and community organizations to open what is now an 8,000 square-foot community garden. The garden grows more than 15 types of fruits and vegetables, and all the produce goes to a local food pantry.
Others, like Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Hospital, have adopted a “farm to bedside” approach to a healthier diet. The hospital’s 2,242 square-foot rooftop farm offers more than 33 varieties of vegetables and herbs for patients. It is a way to help patients “maximize their health, potentially prevent disease progressions and develop good eating habits before they go home,” says nutrition director Josephine Connolly-Schoonen.
“We advocate for community gardens,” she says. “Produce can be expensive, but it doesn’t take a lot to start a community garden. It’s empowering, and involving children is key to establishing healthy eating habits early and emphasizing the importance of a plant-based diet.”
In addition to providing fresh food, community gardens bring neighborhoods closer together, says Kirsten Walter, director of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center’s nutrition center in Lewiston, Maine.
The hospital has transformed abandoned lots around the city into community gardens that “build a sense of community pride in neighborhoods and friendships among neighbors,” Walter says.
Since 1999, the hospital’s “Lots to Garden” program has built 15 gardens and green spaces in four diverse Lewiston neighborhoods. Hundreds of residents from age five to senior citizens are involved in Lots to Gardens, which includes a plot at a senior housing center and another at a public housing project. More than 200 teen volunteers work in the gardens and perform service projects.
Some 60% of the adult gardeners are “New Mainers,” the term Lewiston residents use to describe the local African immigrant and refugee population. “There is a lot of cross-cultural learning going on,” says Walter. “We realize that it is not what we do, but how we do it that has the most impact on our community.”
Meanwhile, residents continue to bring baskets of tomatoes to Grace Cottage Hospital’s registration desk as part of the hospital’s ton of tomatoes initiative.
“I’ve cut a lot of tomatoes and made a lot of puree, but I’ve gained 10 tons of knowledge on partnering with others to provide healthier food to those in need,” says outreach coordinator Monahan.