July 04, 2014 / Week N° 27

Opinion: greenhouse helps keep U.S. hospital healthy

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January 11th, 2013

By Michelle Lutz, resident farmer at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital

A U.S. hospital is growing its own organic produce for patients in a new 1,500-square-foot greenhouse, located on its 160–acre campus in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

The US$1 million complex, including an attached 1,500-square-foot education center, was funded entirely by an anonymous donor who shares the hospital’s passion for wellness.

I am the resident farmer at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and the former co-owner of a certified organic vegetable farm. I’m growing a wide variety of produce in the greenhouse, including tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, peas, beans, strawberries, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage and herbs. Everything is grown from untreated seeds, using sustainable growing practices.

Building a hospital greenhouse and adding a farmer to its staff was the brainchild of Gerard van Grinsven, president and CEO of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

He has set our goal to be a model for how wellness education can improve health and reduce health care costs by providing people with resources to help them achieve optimal health.

The produce being grown in the greenhouse, which opened in September, has already allowed the hospital to cut back on food purchases. Growing some of its own food is projected to save the hospital more than US$20,000 per year, while providing patients, staff and visitors with healthy meals.

The greenhouse uses hydroponics – growing plants in water, instead of soil – to maximize diversity and maintain space for visitors.

Using hydroponic systems allows more control over plant health, with recirculating systems using only 10% of the water needed in soil-based farming. The grower delivers the plants’ needs daily in organic nutrients, and there are fewer risks from pests and diseases. Beneficial insects are released to control harmful insects. And, with no soil, there are no weeds. Best of all for those who eat the healthy meals, there are no pesticide, herbicide or fungicide residues on the food.

The accelerated growth that hydroponic growing promises is true. I have never seen such plant production in such a small space. Some visitors to the greenhouse are considering trying hydroponics at their homes.

We are using three hydroponic techniques in the greenhouse: nutrient film technique (NFT), Dutch buckets and plant towers.

Lettuce and specialty greens are using NFT in growing and nursery channels, where circulating water with organic nutrients nourishes the plants. We should be able to produce 15,000 heads of lettuce per year, when reseeded weekly.

Three 26-foot rows of Dutch buckets are growing 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, with an estimated production of 1,000 pounds of organic produce annually.

The plant towers are an adaptable system which can be used in classrooms, homes and the community.

The greenhouse has automated roof vents and window shades which adjust to temperature, wind and light changes throughout the day, and close at night to retain heat. An alarm system sends a signal to my cell phone when there are power disruptions or if greenhouse temperatures exceed set parameters.

In addition to feeding patients, the produce is used in the hospital’s 90-seat Demonstration Kitchen, where healthy cooking classes are offered to the community and served in the café. They are also sold at Henry Ford West Bloomfield’s seasonal, indoor, weekly farmers’ market, which is open to the public.

I work closely with our chefs so they know what is being grown and when it will be available. And I am open to their suggestions as to what they would like to see grown.

A cooler in the hospital’s kitchen has a section reserved for produce from the greenhouse. A nearby message board lets the chefs know what is available.

Microgreens requested by the hospital’s chefs are seeded and harvested weekly. From the harvest to the plate is less than 24 hours.

On a typical day in the greenhouse, I’m making sure the crops receive proper nutrients, starting seeds to provide a continuous supply of lettuce, and monitoring for plant health, insects and signs of disease.

Additional plantings in the soil surrounding the greenhouse are planned.

The greenhouse has begun to host school field trips, and the demand for the daily tours is high. Bringing in children to show them how food is grown helps them to learn better nutrition, which can prevent childhood obesity and many chronic diseases.

Gardening therapy allows patients to help their recovery while learning how to prevent or manage chronic diseases through healthy growing and eating practices. Space is available for physical, occupational and behavioral therapy, as well as a restful place for staff and people visiting loved ones.

The greenhouse layout was designed by Howard Resh, Ph.D., a pioneering hydroponic researcher, author and practitioner. In addition, Fred Petitt, Ph.D., director of Agriculture & Water Sciences for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, also consulted on the project.

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