THE BLOG

From Farm to Patient: How One Medical Facility is Rethinking Hospital Food

04/24/2015 12:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

The words "hospital food" usually inspire thoughts of rubbery jello and syrupy fruit cups. But the St. Luke's University Health Network in Easton, Pa. is doing its best to change that. In the fall of 2013, it teamed up with the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing organic farms and spreading organic practices, to establish a produce farm serving the hospital network. The farm's harvest quota for this season (its first) was set at 44,000 pounds from five acres of tilled land; as of this writing, it's is on track to exceed that amount.

The excess land used for the farm is part of the St. Luke's Anderson Campus, the newest addition to the St. Luke's hospital network. Opening its doors three years ago, the hospital itself covers about 40 acres -- but in total, it owns 500 acres of land. The additional land was acquired, according to Anderson Campus hospital president Edward Nawrocki, as part of a long-term expansion strategy.

Last year, however, Nawrocki began looking for creative ways to use the extra real estate. Some employees suggested an organic farm, an idea that Nawrocki jumped on. He contacted the Rodale Institute and spoke with executive director Mark "Coach" Smallwood. Coach started looking for a farm manager and quickly decided upon Lynn Trizna, a young woman involved in organic farming that Coach identified as "a farmer without a farm." Nawrocki, "Farmer Lynn" and Coach picked a site for the farm and a smaller, five-acre parcel for the first season. Following organic practices, 12 types of produce -- from tomatoes to kale to beets -- were planted. Often, ripe produce is picked in the morning, transported, prepared and served the same day.

"Health care in the past was about sick care. We got paid when people got sick." says Nawrocki. "In the next decade, it's going to be about keeping people well."

But this change doesn't come without challenges. The existing food vendor, Sodexo, has had to modify its food acquisition practices to incorporate the local produce since many of the items it sources already come prepared. Farmer Lynn and Nawrocki have taken a hands-on approach to working with Sodexo on menu modifications, something that the vendor's staff is excited and proud of.

Currently, the Rodale Farm organic produce is served in the cafeteria, plus it's also gradually being incorporated into the patients' meals, as many are on restricted diets. As the farm grows, Nawrocki, Farmer Lynn and Nawrocki are working to expand patient options. Both hope that other hospitals with land investments will adopt this idea, revolutionizing how food is prepared for those who need good nutrition the most. Who knows? Maybe in the future jello cups and prepackaged food will be seen in the same light as bloodletting today - an anachronism of a less sophisticated time.