These Innovators are Leading the Charge for Healthy Hospital Food

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These Innovators are Leading the Charge for Healthy Hospital Food

This summer my Berlinniversary is coming up, 11 years ago in August I stepped off the plane at Schönefeld airport, thinking I would “just pass through” for a week. After a few days I was besotted with the city, looking for an apartment and looking for a job. It’s also my accidentiversary, the bike accident which I had only a few days after my arrival. On a balmy September evening as I cycled across the city on my way to a concert, I was hit by a postal truck at a busy junction. I woke up in hospital, where my language choices were German or Russian, neither of which I spoke. At hospital, the first word of German I learned was “schmerzen”, for pain.

I was extremely lucky to come away from the accident without any head injuries, however my right leg was badly damaged, and I ended up spending a month in hospital, where they operated on my leg and stitched me back up. During this time I had reduced mobility, I was stuck in bed and couldn’t put my weight on my right leg due to the injury. After a couple of weeks I graduated to a wheelchair, then a pair of crutches.

At meal times in hospital I was given a form to fill out — ticking boxes to indicate my choices. And the choices were not that great. Boiled egg / toast / leberwurst. My memories are fuzzy, no doubt due to some heavy painkillers, but I really don’t remember being brought fresh greens let alone particularly tasty or satisfying meals — it was all bread, potatoes and processed meat. Visitors brought me fresh fruit and baked goods from outside — I can recall my joy at those crunchy salads from the outside world, and feeling the difference in energy from fruit.

I won’t go into detail but let’s say several weeks of little physical activity combined with meals lacking in nutrition, is not the best situation for your gut. When I came out of hospital and followed up with a wound specialist, she not only advised me to build up the weakened muscles in my leg, “Get a treadmill!”, but also warned me to eat my greens, emphasising arugula, which is known for its antioxidant, alkalising properties. Thus began my Rocket Recovery (sorry).

I loaded up on greens and vegetables and prepared abundant fresh salads for myself every day. My flatmates made fun of me for eating so much salad, but I was determined and could feel the difference in my energy levels, digestion and healing.

A 2010 report on over 100 medical schools in the U.S found that only 28 schools in the study provided the recommended minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education to medical students, (an update in 2004 showed an increase to 40 schools). Some hospitals may be trying to pick up the nutritional slack, not only offering healthier meals, but even growing their own produce — in the last couple of years, several hospitals have started on-site farms, gardens and community programs around food.

In 2014, the organic produce program at the Rodale Institute Organic Farm at St. Luke’s in Pennsylvania began, with Lynn Trizna, known as “Farmer Lynn”, growing organic produce in a 10 acre farm on the St. Luke’s Anderson campus. The farm supplies St. Luke’s network of six hospitals and 200 service facilities with 45,000 pounds of produce like broccoli, kale, swiss chard, cabbage, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and salad greens and herbs too. The farm employs organic principles and makes use of beneficial insects, with bee hives, bat boxes and wildflower gardens. The hospital even set up a weekly farmer’s market in the cafeteria, and offers reduced prices at the salad bar to increase access to organic options for patients, employees and visitors. “I want to try and get the best, nutritious food to patients and growing organically will do that. I’m growing for flavour and nutrients, not shipability,” Farmer Lynn explained in a video about the project.

The Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan aims to improve the wellness of their patients by operating a 1,500 square foot greenhouse on site, which opened in 2012. The hospital greenhouse produces 1,000 pounds of organically grown fruit and vegetables per year, which goes on to be used in patient meals, the hospital café and the hospital farmer’s market, which is open to the public. The variety also includes produce which has been grown hydroponically (out of water instead of soil), like micro greens, swiss chard, strawberries and 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, “from Greenhouse to plate in less than 24 hours,” their website says.
The purpose of the greenhouse also extends itself to behavioural therapy for mental health and substance abuse treatment at the hospital, while an education centre helps to spread the word of the healing power of food by offering gardening and “healthy cooking” classes, a farmer’s market, and field trips, to members of the public.

At Eskenazi hospital in Indianapolis, where nearly 1 million outpatients receive care each year, a 5,000 square foot garden built on the roof of the buildings produced over 2,000 pounds of kale, beets, turnip, fennel, green, arugula, spinach, broccoli, squash and more in it’s first year, after opening in December 2013, growing flowers and maintaining a beehive onsite to benefit crop production. According to their website, the Sky Farm produce is intended to be made available to patients through the café and hospital menus.

These projects show that hospital farms can work, though of course there remains a question of funding, and the ability to offer a wide enough variety to satisfy the hospital requirements. The Henry Ford greenhouse was made possible by a $1 million donation, and St Luke’s says they are still years away from offering a menu which is sourced from the garden only, and currently still buy in other produce.

“We always have to get fruits and veggies that just aren’t grown in this climate, in order to fulfill all of the requirements, “Bonnie Coyle, Director of Community Health at St. Luke’s said, “I would love to see this become an opportunity where we are serving this community and making them healthier in the process.”

Elizabeth Rushe is a freelance writer and photographer from Ireland, living in Berlin. She bakes a mean Irish soda bread. What’s that you’re eating? Answers to @elizafoxxx.

Photo by jayneandd CC-BY