Where horticulture meets good health

Features - Cover Story

How one hospital is using its own hydroponic greenhouse to promote the power of healthy living

April 2, 2013
Laura Allen
The 1,500-square-foot greenhouse at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital is used to grow organic fruits and vegetables for patients and visitors.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And one hospital in the United States is doing exactly that. The Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in West Bloomfield, Mich., built a state-of-the-art greenhouse that is hydroponically producing organic fruits and vegetables to serve both patients and visitors.

“It’s all part of [Henry Ford West Bloomfield CEO and President] Gerard [van Grinsven]’s vision,” says Michelle Lutz, the hospital’s resident farmer. “He has a very unique perception on healthcare, and wellness is a big factor of that.

“Right from the beginning, he just wanted to change the food culture here in the hospital, and he really believes that food is medicine, food is healing, and having a greenhouse was always part of that vision,” Lutz adds.

The $1 million complex, which includes a 1,500-square-foot education center, was funded by an anonymous donor and is projected to reduce food cost for the 160-acre hospital campus by more than $20,000 a year, according to a press release from the hospital. The greenhouse officially opened on Sept. 15, 2012.

A former co-owner of the organic vegetable Maple Creek Farm in Yale, Mich., Lutz first began working with the hospital when Maple Creek Farm became a source for the hospital’s food supply.

“The hospital kind of put a callout in the area that they were looking for local growers that use sustainable practices, or organic if possible, and they wanted to access fresh, healthy food for the hospital,” Lutz says.

Van Grinsven then visited the farm and brought along a team of people, which included lawyers and nutritionists.

“I thought it was great because if you’re proud of your work, then you want to show it,” she says. “You want people to come and see it, so that way they can kind of share the same passion you have for it.”

Keeping it clean
It’s a passion Lutz has carried over into her new role, where she grows a variety of produce in the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse. Hydroponics are used to grow the food, a decision that was made before Lutz was brought onto the project.

“There were initially some concerns with some of the infectious disease staff here,” she says. “They worried about soil and disease and that type of thing, and having dirt in the hospital. So when they decided to do the greenhouse hydroponically, that really put their fears to rest.”

Lutz says she’s had to change her thinking that “everything great comes from the soil,” but she now understands the appeal of hydroponics.

Top: The Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital hydroponic greenhouse. Bottom: The $1 million complex, which includes a 1,500-square-foot education center, was funded anonymously and is projected to reduce food cost at the hospital by more than $20,000 a year.

“The hydroponic growing system has really lent to accelerated production, and we have so much crop growing in there that I don’t think we would’ve been able to achieve that level of diversity in the amount of crop that we’re growing,” she says. Since she planted seeds last June, Lutz has seen lettuce finish in 30 days, rosemary in 65 days, thyme in 45 days and cherry tomatoes in 80 days.

Aside from production time, there are other benefits to hydroponics. The layout of the greenhouse makes it easier for visitors to move around, including group tours and patients in wheelchairs. And because the systems can be dissembled, Lutz says is able to place a NFT (nutrient film technique) channel on a table that’s suitable for kids to help her plant.

Confronting challenges

As with any growing technique, Lutz has faced challenges, particularly with growing organically. She says she has struggled to find products that are OMRI-listed. But the benefits of organic production outweigh the difficulties.

“Because we have such high visitation in the greenhouse, we really did not want to be using any chemical in there that would interfere in that practice,” Lutz says. “I love that moment where [visitors] just kind of take a deep breath in and they say to me, ‘Oh, I just love this smell.’ So I like that they can smell food and not chemicals, that’s very important to me.”

While there were several reasons the hospital decided the greenhouse should be organic, the health and wellness factor of it really fits into its mission.

“It’s my opinion, my belief that there is a correlation in what’s being used in our food and the health implications that it has, so for me to be able to share that with people, how you can grow food without the use of toxic chemicals, that was really important,” Lutz says.

More than produce

Aside from serving the hospital fresh, organic food, the complex is heavily focused on serving the community both educationally and therapeutically. As such, it has started working with a school that had its own garden but was facing some challenges.

“One thing that’s kind of a setback in Michigan, we have most of our growing done when our kids are out of school,” Lutz says. But because of hydroponics, gardening can occur any time of year.

Resident Farmer Michelle Lutz tends to organic lettuce crops at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital’s hydroponic greenhouse.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department donated confiscated hydroponic equipment, and a local restaurant not only had its chef come in to do cooking demonstrations and training; it also held a fundraising dinner to raise money for the rest of the needed equipment.

Onsite, the complex hosts school field trips, using the greenhouse and the demonstration kitchen to help children learn more about nutrition, which can help prevent obesity. It also provides visitors and patients the opportunity for garden therapy, which Lutz says she’s still in the process of working on.

“I’ve had patients that have been dealing with bouts of depression come out and just spend time in the greenhouse,” she says. “Being around living plants, just that alone is really therapeutic. And then just using the food as an opportunity to educate people … there are foods that you can eat that will make you feel better, so that is therapy in itself.”

Instilling inspiration
The influence the greenhouse complex has had goes well beyond the hospital and its local community. “We’ve had people from all over the world reach out to us because they hear about this project,” Lutz says. “I’ve heard of other hospitals out there that [say], ‘We want to do this,’ like nursing homes or veteran habilitation centers, so it’s really nice to see that this story is inspiring other potential projects.”

It also provides the opportunity for growers to step up and see where they can contribute to health organizations or schools, or any place they’d like to see local food incorporated, and start a business relationship with them.

“The opportunities are really out there, you just have to be open to them,” Lutz says.

Lutz encourages growers to make the first step in finding the opportunities.

“We have a really good, quality product out there and so we can’t be shy about telling people why they should choose local food,” she says.

Lutz stresses that transparency and honesty are the keys to making a business relationship like this work.

“As a small grower, you shouldn’t be shy about trying new markets, but you also need to be honest with yourself and honest with the potential buyer if you have any limitations,” she says. “I always tell people, ‘Use what your strong points are while you work on your weaknesses.’ But you’ve got to start the discussion. You don’t know what’s possible until you do it.”

Lutz believes growers should invite potential and current buyers to their operations to show them how they produce the food. She says when the hospital first came to visit Maple Creek Farm, the farm wanted to make sure the hospital felt comfortable with the way they handled food, so they showed them all of the equipment, the cleanliness, how the employees were trained, and so on.

For some growers, the opportunity may not be about providing food; it may be about just reaching out to the community.

“In any line of business, if you’re proud of your work, you want to open up your doors and extend it to people,” she says. “How many kids have had the opportunity to go into a greenhouse? Not that many. Sometimes just that positive experience alone can really make a difference.

“I was always a person who marketed directly to the consumer, so I did a lot of that and just did my time in the community, making sure people knew that that’s what we were there for,” Lutz adds. “We were there to share what it was that we had going on. And now I’m lucky enough to be employed by a healthcare system that also feels the same way.”

Photos courtesy of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital