When summer comes, employees at the six hospitals in St. Luke’s University Health Network in eastern Pennsylvania will have the most convenient organic produce market possible: their employee cafeteria.

During harvest season, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other vegetables produced on the five-acre organic farm on St. Luke’s Anderson Campus are used to prepare staff and patient meals — and surplus produce is sold in the cafeterias. “I’ve become so spoiled that I don’t want to go to the grocery store,” says Denise Rader, director of media relations. “Everything looks anemic by comparison.”

St. Luke’s Anderson Campus partnered with Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for organic farming practices, to establish the farm earlier this year. Rodale Institute provides an on-site farmer who plants and harvests the produce and coordinates deliveries to the hospitals. Rodale Institute is transitioning another five acres to organic standards and working toward organic certification from the federal government. The hospital auxiliary is providing funds for a greenhouse that will allow for an extended growing season.

The idea for the farm came from hospital employees, says Ed Nawrocki, president of St. Luke’s Anderson Campus. The employee cafeterias plan menus that make use of the vegetables grown on the farm, and menu items that use the produce are prominently labeled. “We’re picking in the morning and it’s going to the hospital for lunch that day — you can’t get fresher than that,” he says.

The health system will invest about $100,000 to get the farm off the ground. Nawrocki estimates the first-year loss at $50,000, but he expects it to break even within three years.

In the first harvest year, the health system’s institutional food service vendor didn't always adjust patient menus to take full advantage of the just-picked produce, but Nawrocki thinks that problem can be solved. He wants patients to benefit from the fresh produce and to recognize that organic vegetables are a value.

“We have to work with the vendor in the future to have a more flexible menu to account for what is available,” he said. “And we have some work to do to educate our patients that food is coming from the farm.”

Mark Smallwood, executive director of Rodale Institute, has been contacted by other health systems interested in organic farming, and he hopes to replicate the St. Luke’s experience. Doing so will require leadership from hospital executives. “When you take a farm-to-hospital paradigm and put it up against a not-so-great, food-to-hospital paradigm, you create disequilibrium,” he says. “There are lots of barriers to success, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. It is not more difficult; it is just different.”