Clinic Gardens: A Locally-Grown Rx for Health 2

Mountain Family Health Centers and Grand Valley Health Are Pioneers in a Movement

Conservationist and essayist Wendell Berry observed that “People are fed by the food industry which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”

Thankfully, this is changing.

Roaring Fork Valley food activist Illene Pevec, PhD, believes, “We can empower our bodies to be healthy by eating ‘close to the ground.’ Food from a garden supports your health.”

Here on home ground, our valley is honored with two on-site “clinic gardens” that provide nutritious fruits and vegetables for their staff and patients. With the help of volunteers, these gardens also provide the restorative benefits of fresh air, physical activity and connections to one another, nature and source.

Thanks in part to Pevec, one of these vegetable garden flourishes outside the Mountain Family Health Centers (MFHC) in Glenwood Springs. Physician Becca Percy, of Pediatric Partners, joined with Pevec to pitch the idea to Pediatric Partner’s “Healthy Living” program. Nurse Practitioner Jenny Lang-Burns of MFHC soon jumped on board as well.

“We met to talk about doing programs for kids and decided a garden had to be made,” said Percy, who is a pediatrician.

MFHC specializes in healthcare for lower-income populations. As noted in a 2008 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are preferentially consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and of more limited economic means.” As a result, low-SES populations suffer most from the ill effects of inexpensive, nutritiously empty diets—heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

With additional support from Pevec’s Sustainable Foodshed class at Colorado Mountain College, these three champions of wholesome food broke ground this spring. “I am thrilled that we are pioneering this approach to good health in our region. The only other program I know of that is similar, is through the Yale Medical School in New Haven,” says Pevec. “That Yale program actually prescribes vegetable gardening time!”

At MFHC, staff and patients enjoy weeding, seeding and eating. Soon, warm-season tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash will be harvested, but the garden’s rewards have already been tasted. In June, the partners held their first salad party to celebrate their lettuce success.

“It was a great way to give an example of how to assist staff and patient gardeners to eat a more-fresh and healthy diet,” points out Nurse Practitioner Lang-Burns. “I think many of our staff and patients have never participated directly in a garden and are amazed at how a garden grows and what is needed for a garden to grow. For our patients, I think the garden has provided a sense of purpose and community pride. It gives them motivation to be outside and be more active—which all directly improve their well-being and health.”

“The garden has been used for many purposes,” Lang-Burns continues. “Yesterday, one of our behavior health providers took a patient to the garden for a counseling session. Staff use some of their free time to pull weeds. All of us check out the garden as we walk in the door and appreciate the goodness that the earth provides!”

Adds Percy, “I just love how many people have pitched in and done the grunt work. I tend to come up with ideas but not have the logistics to back it up. This is people coming together to make a positive impact on the community.”

Grand River Health (GRH) in Rifle has jumped on board the clinic gardens movement too. What started as a few beds in 2013 has become a veritable Victory Garden and a key aspect of GRH’s Nutritional Services Department. Grand River’s heated greenhouse enables them to provide food year around, thanks to the efforts of Greenhouse Manager Jackie Geiselman. Live Well and Subaru grants secured through Meals On Wheels helped the department to purchase a greenhouse heater and to set up the electricity to run it.

The commitment to GRH’s nutritional services is also evident in their perennial crops—plants that return each year, growing larger and providing increasing abundance. A hillside by the greenhouse grows many perennials: grapes, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, rhubarb, horseradish and several varieties of mint. Several perennial herbs and root crops bring hospital food to life; these include chives, bee balm and parsley as well as shallots, onions and garlic. The greenhouse provides beets, kale, lettuce, cabbage, chard, broccoli, collard, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash, melons and cukes!

In 2015, the GRH annual report announced a harvest of 2,200 pounds while the Grand River Health Cafe prepared an average of 45 pounds of produce each week.

From Yale to Children’s Hospital in San Antonio to the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, hospitals and clinics around the U.S. have taken steps that show that they believe that a shift in medicine and health can be found through eating clean, wholesome fruits and vegetables. While some hospital campuses grow at an acreage scale, employing staff farmers and apprentices and providing produce on a huge scale for their cafeterias and cafes, they will be the first to admit that it’s not a profitable venture.

They also acknowledge that it’s a challenge to get kitchen staff to jump on board: Commercial produce, by comparison, arrives already cleaned and prepped. Not everyone likes whipped turnips versus the comfort of mashed potatoes.

But medical facilities are investing in clinic gardens to shift the paradigm of food and health. As Hippocrates wrote, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

Mountain Family Health Center and Grand River Health are doing just that.