Organic Farm-to-Hospital Program Eyes Menu Expansion

2 weeks ago 7
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A veteran executive chef with a passion for healthful eating. A 12-acre farm on site that grows kale, eggplants, winter squash, and 100 other crops. A menu that changes by the season.

You may be familiar with farm-to-table restaurants. But have you heard of organic farm-to-hospital dining?

Since 2014, patients, visitors, and staff at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Pennsylvania have been the beneficiaries of an unusual -- albeit expensive -- enterprise that is equal parts about culinary exploration, environmental sustainability, and support for local farmers.

St. Luke’s, a nonprofit regional medical network based in Bethlehem, PA, partners with Rodale Institute, an advocacy group for organic farming, on what may be the largest-scale farm-to-hospital program in the U.S. The St. Luke’s-Rodale Institute Organic Farm on the Anderson Campus of St. Luke’s in Easton supplies the chain’s 12 hospitals. It also supports a farmers market inside the Anderson Campus hospital as well as a small retail operation that sells grab-and-go meals like roasted veggie sandwiches.

The hospital’s menu features dishes more commonly served in popular eateries: Thai spiced chicken wraps featuring the farm’s butterhead lettuce or nutrient-packed grain bowls with veggies like peppers, zucchini, fennel, and kohlrabi.

The Anderson Campus of St. Luke’s first opened in 2011 on 500 acres of land, of which only around 50 was occupied by the hospital itself. After deciding it would be a good idea to create an organic farm on part of the excess land, the hospital then contacted the nearby Rodale Institute for farming expertise and to explore a potential partnership. The first farming season kicked off in 2014, and the rest is history.

“When you think about having your own organic farm, usually that’s reserved for Michelin star restaurants,” says Charles DeLeva, executive chef at the Anderson Campus. “I like to know where my product comes from as a chef, and you can’t do any better than that.”

DeLeva’s kitchen crew works closely with the farming team to update menus seasonally based on current harvests. Tomato basil soup in the summer is changed to butternut squash or acorn squash bisque during the fall. DeLeva’s team also might overhaul a menu on the fly to use high-quality produce to maximum advantage.

“Sometimes, I might get 50 pounds of something and go, ‘Never mind what I had on the menu, this is way better. Let’s do that instead.’”

Patients, employees, and the community have responded enthusiastically.

“People are impressed that we’ve invested in it, we’ve got such a big farm, and that a lot of things from the kitchen are from the farm,” says Ed Nawrocki, president of the Anderson Campus.

DeLeva says that St. Luke’s as a whole embraces making meals from scratch as much as possible, avoiding deep fryers, and using minimally processed food. The organic produce right on the hospitals’ doorsteps have introduced more people to chemical-free, fresh, clean food.

“You’d be surprised by how many seniors have told me that they never had organic produce. Now they buy it at their own grocery stores,” says DeLeva, whose patients at the Anderson Campus are mostly 65 and older.

“I have a nice senior at nighttime who comes to me and gives me little status reports or updates from eating her healthy meals at night. ‘I lost 10 pounds’, ‘my blood pressure's down five points,’ you know? And to me, that's everything.”

Despite the bounty, the organic farming partnership is a money-losing enterprise.

It takes a lot of labor to tend to 100 crops, grow as much as 100,000 pounds of produce annually, and distribute them to 12 hospitals. And incorporating the perishable ingredients into the menu is time consuming. The chefs, for example, must dice, wash, and dry the produce -- time they don’t need to spend with pre-packaged vegetables.

Still, “We think it’s a good investment. It’s good for the community, good for the environment,” Nawrocki says.

The payoffs come in other ways, too. Nawrocki says the presence of an organic farm on hospital property helps attract new residents and fellows and generates favorable coverage of St. Luke’s and the Rodale Institute on social media and the press.

Aslynn Parzanese, interim farm manager at the St. Luke’s-Rodale Institute Organic Farm, applauds St. Luke’s commitment to preventive health. “The hospital is prioritizing healthy foods, rather than prioritizing what could be considered convenient,” she says. “And I think that that is amazing and needs to be kind of universal. I think that hospitals all over could potentially have gardens or even farms like this.”

This fall, St. Luke’s and Rodale are aiming to expand the menu offering. The partnership is in the midst of hiring a fruit farmer. The goal is to start with strawberries and raspberries in the upcoming season, then expand to blueberries and blackberries.

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