ProMedica Farms Grows Healthier Communities

Driving around Lenawee County in southern Michigan, it’s not unusual to see farms and fields dotting the landscape. Farming is one of the county’s largest industries, and Lenawee is the top corn producer in the state. But nestled in Adrian Township is a farm growing more than just produce. ProMedica Farms, located on the ProMedica Charles and Virginia Hickman Hospital campus, is growing and nurturing healthy habits for county residents.

The 3-acre farm was created to support ProMedica’s focus on addressing the social determinants of health, or the aspects of health that take place outside the doctor’s office.

“ProMedica Farms supports healthy communities by offering an interactive experience for everyone to see, feel and learn where fresh produce comes from,” says Frank Nagle, director of Community Impact for ProMedica in Michigan. “The program improves food access through our Veggie Mobile and provides opportunities to learn how to garden through an educational series offered to youth groups, schools and senior centers.”

The goal of ProMedica Farms is to offer fresh fruit and vegetables at affordable prices to improve the health of the community. And the produce grown on the farm is sold in the Veggie Mobile, a mobile farmers market that visits 19 locations throughout the county every week.

The Veggie Mobile is open to anyone in the community. Patients who identify a need for food receive a voucher to redeem for produce. Veggie Mobile driver Jill Schnur visits senior centers, low-income housing complexes, public locations, the YMCA and the hospital with a truck full of healthy options and helps educate shoppers on the day’s selections.

“ProMedica Farms is a combination of a local source to grow vegetables and produce for the Veggie Mobile, but it also allows us the opportunity for teaching and hands-on education,” says Stacey Tilton, farm coordinator, ProMedica. “It’s a place for the community to come and learn how their food is grown and where it comes from.”

Tilton oversees the day-to-day operations for the farm, which includes planting and tending to the 53 different varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs — everything from artichokes to zucchini. The farm sources additional produce from local growers to provide a greater quantity and assortment of products for the Veggie Mobile. Selection rotates seasonally but often includes lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, kale, radishes and strawberries.

“We offer individual portions to minimize waste and recipes to highlight what’s in season at the farm or from local growers,” says Tilton. “This encourages people to add something new to their diet. Teaching shoppers how to cook and prepare the vegetables is just as important. If you don’t know what to do with sunchokes, it doesn’t really matter how healthy and affordable it is.”

Providing a Reliable Source of Fresh Food

Many members of the community have come to rely on the Veggie Mobile for their weekly produce shopping.

“Lenawee County is really rural and spread out, so there are a lot of food deserts here,” says Julie Conley, education and support specialist for ProMedica Farms. “Even though we’re an agricultural community, there are a lot of small towns without a grocery store. That’s why the Veggie Mobile started — to grow food for the community and educate people to improve health outcomes.”

Food insecurity increased across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. As COVID-19 restrictions kept people away from stores and farmers markets, the Veggie Mobile remained steadfast in its commitment to providing health and wellness through food.

“People knew they could count on the Veggie Mobile to deliver the same quality items even during the pandemic,” says Tilton. “It meant the world to us that we were able to resume operations despite some of our locations being temporarily closed.”

In 2020, the Veggie Mobile served 6,927 people and donated nearly 6,500 pounds of produce to the community. More than 1,800 pounds of produce sold was harvested from ProMedica Farms.

ProMedica Farms also partners with a local school district to donate fruit to students facing food insecurity. While the program started before the pandemic, the need significantly increased during the 2020-2021 school year.

“We’re grateful to have the support of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and the Lenawee Community Foundation to continue our operations and share ProMedica Farms with the public,” says Tilton.

Harnessing the Healing Power of Nature

While the farm provides a valuable service to the community, it also complements the healing mission of ProMedica. The 900-square-foot clinical hoop house features raised beds at varying heights that make plants easily accessible for children or those in wheelchairs. Railings, parallel bars and staircases within the space can also be used for physical and occupational therapy. And two miles of walking paths on the campus draw patients, visitors and community members.

Research has shown that gardens in healthcare settings can improve health outcomes. The farm grounds provide a calming green space and a connection to nature to reduce stress and relieve symptoms. A sensory garden within the hoop house offers soothing smells of fresh herbs and flowers and the trickling sounds of a waterfall pond.

An added benefit of the farm is what Tilton calls “dirt therapy.” Gardening can help strengthen muscles and improve balance while contributing to positive emotional and behavioral health effects.

A Community Resource

In addition to the hoop house where fruits and vegetables are grown, ProMedica Farms has an 800-square-foot education center to host schools, garden clubs and community groups.

Since May of 2018, ProMedica Farms has provided 55 educational workshops to 386 students in Lenawee County. Of the youth who participated in the ProMedica Farms three-module education series:

  • 8% self-reported increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • 5% self-reported knowledge of healthy eating behaviors (reading food labels, washing produce, hand hygiene, reducing sugar sweetened beverages).
  • All engaged in gardening activities including planting, pruning and harvesting fresh Michigan-grown produce.

While COVID-19 put a temporary pause on programming, the ProMedica Farms team is excited to safely resume and build educational opportunities with community partners in the coming months.

“We’re really looking forward to opening up more to the community,” says Conley. “A lot of our education has been up in the air since the start of COVID-19, but we recently got approval to begin hosting small groups again. We look forward to bringing back more cooking classes and growing workshops to address food insecurity and highlight the benefits that come with growing your own food and learning to eat healthier.”

For more information about volunteering or partnering with ProMedica Farms, email promedica.farms@promedica.org. Additional information about the Veggie Mobile and the weekly schedule is available on their Facebook page.

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