DETROIT — Perched on an 8-foot ladder, Michelle Lutz reaches into the leafy tops of the pole-bean vines growing toward the glass roof of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital’s new $1 million hydroponic greenhouse.
“The first ones!” the resident farmer declares, holding up several young pods.
Already that morning she had picked red and green lettuces, heirloom cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, edible nasturtiums and bunches of herbs for the hospital’s kitchen, which uses the produce in patients’ meals and its café.
Dozens of kinds of vegetables and herbs — five types of kale, 23 kinds of tomatoes, five varieties of basil, eggplants, squash, hot and sweet peppers, fresh herbs, microgreens and even strawberry plants — have been thriving since mid-summer in what Henry Ford officials say is the first hospital-based greenhouse in the nation.
It is surprisingly prolific. Hospital chefs no longer have to buy microgreens or basil, their most-used herb, because the greenhouse produces all they need. “If I manage this properly,” Lutz says, indicating her 12-by-20-foot hydroponic table, “this will produce 15,000 heads of lettuce in a year. For 240 square feet, that’s pretty incredible.”
But growing organic vegetables year-round for the hospital’s kitchens isn’t the only purpose of the gleaming, 1,500-square-foot glass structure and its adjoining educational center, both entirely funded by an anonymous donor.
The buildings are designed to educate and inspire everyone from patients to the public to make healthier food choices — in keeping with the hospital’s mission of promoting wellness as well as treating illness.
And because of Michigan’s high childhood obesity rates, many of its educational center exhibits and programs are geared toward kids.
“We want to make sure that every single day we have yellow school buses coming here from all over southeast Michigan,” says hospital CEO Gerard van Grinsven. “We want to influence our young ones to start thinking differently about food and what they put in their bodies.”
His vision for the project doesn’t stop at the West Bloomfield, Mich., campus. “Ultimately, we can take this to downtown Detroit and start producing food for the entire (Henry Ford) system — not have it just here,” van Grinsven says.
“This is not just about a little greenhouse. It’s about planting seeds,” he says.
Only a few years ago, the idea of hospital gardens for growing food, providing therapy, involving employees and educating the community sounded far-fetched. But today, scores of health-care institutions around the country are creating or sponsoring front-lawn vegetable patches, hoop houses, community gardens and even beds on their rooftops.
“We certainly hear of more hospitals getting engaged in food campaigns and fitness campaigns among their staff and the broader community,” says Michael Bilton, executive director of the Association for Community Health Improvement, part of the American Hospital Association.
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