If food is medicine, Carson Tahoe Health has a prescription for what ails its community.
A mini farm on the campus of the medical center in Carson City, Nevada, overflows with fresh vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, peas, carrots, salad greens, and root vegetables. Since the 960-square-foot hoop house and raised beds were first installed this past summer, the Foothill Garden has become a beacon in the fight against hunger.
Carson City, the relatively quiet capital of Nevada, ranks as one of the best places to retire in the state, but job opportunities are limited compared with bigger cities like Reno and Las Vegas. Unemployment in this small city, located just east of Lake Tahoe, hovered around 4.3 percent according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared the national rate of 3.9 percent during that same period (July). Many residents struggle to put fresh food on their tables.
“A lot of our residents live in food deserts and shop for their groceries at the convenience store,” says Cory King, site manager and garden educator for The Greenhouse Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to growing fresh produce for those in need. “Some people have access to processed foods, but it’s fresh food that makes a difference in their physical and mental health.”
The Greenhouse Project partnered with Carson Tahoe Health to launch the Foothill Garden, the group’s second site in the city. (It started growing produce on the Carson High School campus in 2010.) According to the Food for Thought nonprofit, which serves children in need throughout 16 schools in the area, nearly half of the roughly 8,000 students in the Carson City District qualify for food assistance. And a 2014 Feeding America survey estimated that overall, about 7,930 city residents lacked reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious foods.
To reach those in need, The Greenhouse Project delivers all of the fresh produce grown in both gardens to local organizations, including Meals on Wheels, the Ron Wood Family Resource Center, and the Eagle Valley Children's Home.
Hospital president and CEO Ed Epperson, a self-described farm kid, recognized the potential to address the health of more than just Carson Tahoe’s patients when he turned to The Greenhouse Project for help in creating a mini farm on the medical center’s 80-acre campus. “We had the chance to help people supplement their diets with foods they might not otherwise have access to,” he explains.
Though the hospital had both the funds and the manpower to establish the Foothill Garden on its own—staff started growing fresh produce at the Creekside Garden, on another part of campus, in 2013—Epperson believed a partnership would provide a bigger benefit to the community.
“When it comes to the topics of health and food insecurity, it’s not something one entity can address,” he says. “These kinds of initiatives are more successful when communities are driving them and feel ownership in their outcomes.”
The two Carson City greenhouse sites have yielded much more than fresh produce. At Carson Tahoe Health, local residents can attend gardening workshops on topics ranging from extending the growing season to chemical-free gardening to growing garlic. Additionally, hospital dietitians lead cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes. And at the high school, students in the culinary program and members of the Carson High chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) learn about the importance of local foods and careers in farming while tending vegetables.
The educational opportunities provided through the hospital’s gardens also help to increase community awareness of the connection between diet and health. “Embracing food as medicine is so key for a medical facility, not just in response to health problems but in helping to keep people well,” King says.
The Foothill Garden at Carson Tahoe Health has produced more than 200 pounds of fresh produce since the beginning of this year. King hopes to grow—and donate—an additional 200-plus pounds fruits and vegetables by the end of 2018. The Meals on Wheels program, operated through the Carson City Senior Center, is eager for the donations.
“If we could do farm to fork for everything, it would be awesome,” says the senior center’s business manager, Michael Salogga. “As the program grows, we’d love to be able to plan our menus in advance around what’s growing in the garden.”
Realistically, however, The Greenhouse Project cannot on its own feed the community at the scale Salogga dreams of. At Meals on Wheels, federal and state reimbursements cover just $3.15 per meal, about half of the total cost. With drivers now delivering 2,100 meals per week—reflecting a doubling in demand since 2015—menus centered on fresh produce are simply not in the budget. Instead, meals are designed around what can be purchased from food service companies and are approved—sometimes months in advance—by state nutritionists.
The chefs have come up with some creative work-arounds, like incorporating fresh vegetables into preapproved menu items like minestrone soup and garden salads. Extra produce is set out at the senior center for residents to take and prepare on their own.
King is aware of the issues and is focused on finding solutions. He stays in touch with chefs at the various partner organizations to share details about what’s growing in the garden and how it could be used in their menus. He’s also working to spread awareness of The Greenhouse Project’s mission during harvest dinners, garden tours, and seed sales. The nonprofit has sought to further expand its reach through partnerships with AmeriCorps and FFA as well as through regional media appearances, in hopes it will serve as a model for other cities.
Hospitals elsewhere have embraced the idea of growing produce for both patients and local residents. St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island, and Chicago’s Weiss Memorial Hospital all have mini farms on their campuses.
“Many communities have similar needs. If we come together, we can start to address some of these issues on a bigger level and have a real impact,” King says. “It takes a village to feed a community.”
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