In an effort to encourage healthy eating among patients and staff, many hospitals are revamping their food service programs. One Florida hospital is going even further by growing its own food.

Baptist Health’s South Florida Homestead Hospital is growing about 20 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, which will be consumed by hospital  patients, visitors and employees.

Homestead Hospital’s newest facility was built in 2007 on former potato fields, according to Thi Squire, the community garden manager for the hospital. Seeing an “explosion of chronic disease” in its service area a few years ago — often brought about or exacerbated by poor eating habits — Homestead’s leadership made a commitment to improve the nutrition of people coming into contact with the hospital. With 10 acres of land surrounding its campus left unused and overgrown with weeds, they decided to use that land to grow fresh, healthy food.

Squire believes that just telling a patient to eat more healthfully is no longer enough.

“This type of activity is extremely new and innovative for the health care system,” she says. “Traditionally, health care providers will tell you to eat nutritious food, but it kind of stops there and doesn’t go into teaching you how to prepare a meal or go shopping or actually bringing fresh produce to you.”

Three years or so into the process, the hospital still is in the start-up phase, with only about one-quarter of one acre being farmed. Squire says the team is seeking more manpower to help ramp things up. She’s also working to help educate workers throughout the system on healthy eating.

Right now, the hospital is using about 10 volunteers from local high schools, colleges and other community organizations who help with everything from weeding to planting, harvesting and maintaining the land. During the peak season from October to May, the farm will grow everything from tomatoes to black-eyed peas, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard and watermelon. Not only does that food go on the menu for patients, it also goes to the cafeteria for employees and visitors.

Homestead Hospital also uses its “Grow2Heal” Community Garden to educate children and the community about healthy eating. The flagship educational offering is called “Grow Your Lunch,” which allows kids to visit the farm to help plant seeds, pick produce and prepare their own midday meals. In its first year, the farm was able to reach more than 1,000 individuals in the community, according to the hospital’s website.

While such agricultural efforts are rare on hospital properties, Squire believes they may become more commonplace as hospitals seek ways to move upstream and prevent chronic disease. She is working on compiling data on the program’s success up to this point, but early indications are that a small investment in healthy food spells a huge savings down the line from adverse health care events. Aside from the actual volume of produce that's grown and harvested, Squire says the program’s No. 1 success metric is the number of people that Homestead can connect directly to its farm. They're also tracking patients’ progress when they attend workshops, with the goal of reducing their blood pressure and readmission rates. 

She believes that when hospitals take a leading role in these efforts it has a powerful impact on patients.

“It really shows the community that we are practicing what we preach,” she says. “It’s not just another purchase or a vendor that we’re bringing in because we know the farmer down the road and we want to support them. We’re really walking the talk, and I think it sets a much more powerful example for our community than just buying it from a third party.”