Organic Food is the Best Medicine, and a Pennsylvania Hospital Agrees

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What if hospitals took the ultimate step in preventative medicine: bringing healthy, organic food right to their patients?

That’s what Lankenau Medical Center finally did in April 2015, when it opened the Deaver Wellness Farm after years of planning. The half-acre organic farm has one goal: providing healthy, fresh, organic food to patients.

It was in 2011 that administrators at the Center, located right on the border of Philadelphia County, realized that this was the unhealthiest of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, with widespread obesity and chronic disease including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. It was no surprise that patients also had varying access to healthy food and nutritional knowledge, given the prevalence of food insecurity in the area.

Nearly 14 percent of Americans today — about 23 million people — live in food insecure households, a problem that studies show is linked to the increased prevalence of heart disease. In April, Michigan-based researchers linked the prevalence of the buildup of coronary calcium in residents of poorer neighborhoods throughout the United States to the lack of healthy food choices in these neighborhoods — and what’s more, this was the only factor among tested neighborhoods that consistently coincided.

Chinwe Onyekere, Lankenau’s associate administrator, noted that some of the Center’s patients, many of whom were battling chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular problems, were only getting zero to two servings of fresh foods a day.

“The role of the provider is not only to address health care, but to address social issues,” she explained in a briefing.

It was time to make a change.

Thanks to a partnership with Greener Partners, a nonprofit advocate for local food systems in Pennsylvania, the Deaver Wellness Farm was born at the Center. Open to patients, staff, and the public, the farm features about two dozen organic gardens, a greenhouse, a composting area, and tasting areas. Greener Partners calls it a “hands-on classroom” that patients and other visitors can use to gain greater understanding of “the role of fresh vegetables and healthy eating in preventative care.”

So far, the farm has been an unmitigated success. As of mid-December, it had provided more than 4,000 pounds of organic food to hospital patients at no cost, used in the hospital cafeteria as well as in educational demonstrations to help patients take their healthy eating habits with them. In fact, most of the organic food produced ends up leaving the farm as gifts and tools for patients to use at home.

“From the moment the patient walks into the door to the moment they leave the office, that whole experience is focused on improving their health,” Onyekere told Yes! Magazine about this proactive approach.

An estimated 400 patients have been helped by the program so far, and the Center isn’t stopping growth any time soon.

The Center intends to grow the farm in the coming months, with four additional raised beds, and increased on-site educational programs, which currently reach more than 10,000 students annually.

“Creating and maintaining the Delema G. Deaver Wellness Farm, in collaboration with Greener Partners, gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the impact that nutrition and locally grown food can have on the health of individuals and on our community,” said Onyekere of the project.

A handful of other similar institutions exist in the U.S.: St. Luke’s University Anderson Campus, also in Pennsylvania, worked with the Rodale Institute to launch a similar project, and St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor also boasts its own farm. Hopefully, the trend — and healthy organic food — will continue to spread throughout the country.

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American writer based in Paris. She is particularly interested in the ways in which the stories of one person, one ingredient, one tradition can illustrate differences and similarities in international food culture. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Paste Magazine, and Serious Eats. Twitter: @emiglia | www.emilymmonaco.com.