Farm at St. Joe’s builds community by promoting fresh air, exercise, good health

Produce is shown in the farmer's market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital's Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Produce is shown in the farmer’s market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital’s Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Not many hospitals have a farm.

But St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., does.

The hospital’s 364-acre on-campus farm gives patients, veterans, students and a few other folks the chance to grow organic vegetables, learn about nutrition and get some fresh air.

The Catholic Health Association honored the hospital June 3 for its innovative approach to healing and wellness with its 2013 Achievement Citation, presented during CHA’s annual assembly in Anaheim, Calif. The award honors innovation and creativity. CHA said the farm fits the hospital’s core values and mission “to heal body, mind and spirit, to improve the health of our communities and to steward the resources entrusted to us.”

CHA’s Catholic Health World magazine has chronicled the work and ministry of the farm. The vegetables and greens produced by the farm find their way to patient meals and the hospital’s Market Café, formerly the cafeteria. Fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers are offered for sale at a farmers’ market inside the hospital.

Anyone can work on the farm, even those confined to bed. Some vegetables are planted in elevated beds for those who cannot squat or bend to reach the ground.

Betsy Taylor’s article says the farm operates year-round with a manager and two additional paid employees and a crew of volunteers. Vegetables are grown during all four seasons thanks to three hoop houses that capture the sun’s energy to keep the plants inside from freezing.

Much of the rest of the hospital campus has been transformed as well. Alfalfa and natural meadows surround the facilities, eliminating financial and ecological costs of a carefully landscaped and maintained lawn.

The award may just inspire other facilities, hospitals, colleges and universities and office parks to consider moving into this ecologically friendly direction.

One Response

  1. Like back to the future this is very interesting. In the early 1900’s Willmar State Hospital was established in Willmar MN initially for the treatment of alcoholics. Therapy was mostly based on a healthy sober environment which included work on a farm also produced essential including garden produce which was used to reduce the cost of care. The hospital campus included it’s own dairy and hog operations. The animals were slaughtered and along with milk and other dairy products provided health diets for those recovering. Some time later the mentally ill were added to this mix and they too benefitted from this therapeutic environment where the dignity of work, a health diet and being close to the earth were recognized as helpful. Modern detoxification methods and psychotropic medications were not known until the 50’s. Adapting the AA philosophy during the Hospital developed the “Minnesota model” of treatment and became the first place in the nation to train alcohol recovery counselors. It was once the largest chemical dependency treatment center in the world and served as the grandmother of all chemical treatment facilities. In the mid 60’s the facility housed about 500 people in chemical dependency treatment and another 250 or so mentally ill. Having been introduced in only about 1957 new psychotropic medications, starting with Thorazine had reduced the mentally ill population by more than half – so instead of more than 1200 the population of that hospital was now about 750 in 1965. Because industrial therapy including janitorial services and work in the gardens, kitchens and laundry greatly reduced the cost of care the daily rate for treatment was only dollars a day. These practices fell out of favor and the farm was discontinued in the 70’s. Patients continued to work in food and janitorial services until the 80’s when the federal government through Medicare decided this was not appropriate therapy for the mentally ill or and chemically dependent. There was also a push for de-institutionalization of mental patients for whom the hospital had become a home. Until that time the hospital functioned like it’s own little community with it’s own canteen store, it’s own movie theatre and so forth. Patients sometimes had their own little gardens and sold produce to employees for pocket change. There was much bad about this system but there was also something very good that had been lost. It seem St Joe’s is starting to recover parts of that.

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