Completely Healthy, Organic Hospital Food

01 Dec, 2013

If you’ve ever had to stay in a hospital, you know just how unhealthy the food can be. It is mass produced, its nutrition badly eroded with chemicals, fats and processing. Times are indeed changing, however. One dedicated Detroit-area organic farmer now runs an on-site organic greenhouse for Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital—and all the patient food prepared in the hospital kitchen either comes out of this greenhouse or is otherwise sourced from local sustainable producers.

“When they were opening this particular facility five years ago, the CEO at the time decided that the food culture here would be completely different,” Michelle Lutz, resident farmer at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, told Organic Connections. “He really wanted the food to be fresh and healthy, and wanted to influence people in their diets—not just from a healing perspective while they were with us but long term. He wished to help people avoid bad food and heal from chronic diseases. He knew diet was a very powerful way to do that.”

Local Sourcing

The hospital did not begin with its own growing facility because initially the funding was not available. But it did start out by sourcing everything it could find that was locally and sustainably grown.

“The CEO put out a call for local organic growers, as he preferred to buy directly from the farmers,” Lutz related. “His was one of the very first healthcare organizations in this area that I knew of that wanted to have an actual farm truck pull up instead of a US Foods or Sysco truck. That’s how my relationship first started with them; I was a grower and we grew some food for the hospital.”

Lutz’s relationship with the hospital and its staff continued to blossom, and a year ago when the decision was made to install their own organic greenhouse, they turned to her to operate it.

Broad Array of Crops

A healthy percentage of the hospital’s food requirements are grown in its own facility. “We grow pretty close to 100 percent of all of the herbs that the kitchen uses,” Lutz said. “We really believe in using herbs to build flavors into the food; watching how much sodium is used in the recipes here is of great importance to us.

“Leafy greens are another thing that we grow. We also do tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower and beans. We’ll change it around depending on the time of year.

“We work with the chefs and find out what it is that they’re going to need. The menu changes four times a year at the hospital. It’s nice, because we want to be sustainable growers, so we like to match the crops that we’re growing for the time of year. The kitchen works really well with me on that crop plan.”

More than Just the Food

Lutz asserts that given more resources she could provide all the food for the hospital. But there is a very good reason that she doesn’t, that she holds back her growing operations just a bit.

“We want the greenhouse to be therapeutic and also educational,” Lutz continued. “We do a program for young children to help them attain and maintain a healthy weight. We call it Farmer for a Day and Chef for a Day. When we have young people out in the greenhouse, we really want to showcase as much variety of produce as we possibly can. From that standpoint we’re not only about production, we’re also there to inspire and educate.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had a patient come down, or even a family member of a patient; just being around living things is so therapeutic. Sometimes the person may be in a wheelchair or walking a little slow, recuperating from surgery; but the smiles and the stories that are shared and how it’s such a wonderful healing experience show that it’s really well worth the investment to have a project like this going.”

Community Involvement

In addition, there are numerous trips to the hospital greenhouse and demonstration kitchen from local schools, groups and other medical facilities; in this way the whole community becomes involved. “We have regular field trips and visitors who come out to see the greenhouse,” said Lutz. “We have also been toured by staff from healthcare facilities and senior assisted-living centers—in fact, we have had visits from all over the world. I really do feel that we are having great influence on change in the healthcare organizations. We’ve even had return trips, multiple visits, where people are now instituting a garden or a demonstration kitchen; so they’re taking away some part of our wellness and bringing it back with them. I’m happy that I work for an organization that is very supportive of us being an open book, of us being a resource to the community.”

A Natural Choice

Lutz was the obvious choice to run the hospital’s organic greenhouse. For many years she had managed her own eight-acre organic farm in the area. “At the time the hospital came to me I had operated my farm for about eighteen years,” Lutz said. “We grew a very large variety of produce and were committed to local food systems. That’s how my career started, and I’ve been able to do some really wonderful things in the line of agriculture.”

Lutz’s dedication to organic cultivation goes all the way back to childhood. “When I was a child, we always had very large gardens,” she recalled. “I tell people that my instincts in organic farming were founded when my parents would have a load of manure delivered every spring. I’ll be honest: I was a little embarrassed at the time, since I thought it was because we could not afford all the sprays that everyone else used. Little did I know that they were actually instilling in me the good practices of growing food responsibly by using manure for fertility, composting, and pulling weeds instead of spraying them. I’ll never forget when my stepdad used AgriFabric for the first time. I didn’t really understand if those methods would work or not, but those were the practices that we used and it seemed a natural transition for me.”

Inspiration for Change

At the end of the day, Lutz wants to make a positive impact on patient health, and even inspire them to eat healthily. “We have a responsibility to our patients,” she concluded. “We want to make sure that while you’re here we are giving you food that can actually help heal you and assist you on your road to recovery. Then maybe if you’ve been wanting to change your diet, we can hopefully inspire you to do so. Sometimes that’s all it takes. If a person has perhaps never had kale before or Swiss chard or a really healthy leafy green, they try it and say, ‘Wow, this is really good!’ and it could inspire them to make changes in their diet.”

For more information on Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, please visit www.henryfordwestbloomfield.com.

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