One by one, Thi Squire plucks ruby heirloom tomatoes off the vine and picks dark wine-colored lettuce leaves from the soil.
The ingredients are destined to be tossed in a kale salad sprinkled with beets and baby carrots; fresh mint leaves will be mixed into fruit-infused water that is served to patients at Homestead Hospital.
“Why do we do this? There’s tons of data that says if you eat more fruits and vegetables you are less likely to get sick, regardless of the ailment,” said Squire, who works as the garden’s manager for the hospital, which is an extension of Baptist Health Systems. Squire said Homestead Hospital is one of just a few medical centers in the nation that has the ability to grow their own food.
“A lot of hospitals have partnerships with local farms, but very few have a farm on their actual campus,” she said. “One reason is because not many hospitals have the actual land.”
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About three years ago, Baptist set aside 10 acres of unused land adjacent to the hospital on Campbell Drive and Southwest 147th Avenue. The goal was to create educational programs that would give patients access to organic, sustainable foods. Squire leads the efforts in providing meals to patients with serious illnesses and putting on workshops for staff, students and the community on how to cook with natural, non-processed foods.
“The goal is that they don’t show up at the hospital and get admitted for their chronic disease to begin with. We don’t really want people to show up just to get an organic meal, but instead have them go home with knowledge; that they can learn how to go home and make a dish low in sugar and salt and actually enjoy it,” Squire said.
Dubbed Grow2Heal, the garden is in its start-up phase and operating on about a quarter of an acre. It gathers about 10 student volunteers a month from local high schools and colleges and puts together about 2,500 meals during harvest peak times, typically November through May.
We anticipate that when the garden is farmed out...we’d be able to serve 100,000 meals a year.
Jennifer Pages, Homestead Hospital spokeswoman
“We anticipate that when the garden is farmed out on all 10 acres, we’d be able to serve approximately 100,000 meals a year,” said Jennifer Pages, a spokeswoman for Homestead Hospital.
The farm also has a greenhouse, a new beehive to harvest honey and a sunflower garden where the blossoms are placed in patients’ rooms.
The parcel of land has produced dozens of fruit and vegetable varieties including radishes, bananas, red oak lettuce, cucumbers, collard greens, Swiss chard, squash, watermelon, black-eyed peas, kidney beans and green beans. Squire also grows herbs such as lemongrass, rosemary, French sorrel and oregano. In season this month? Tropical fruit, mostly mangoes.
Claudia Marquez, a 23-year-old Florida International University graduate student and volunteer at Grow2Heal, says the unique farm-to-table experience is a creative solution to the ongoing challenges with chronic disease management and preventive healthcare.
“I gained the cooking skills to be confident in dishes I never knew I can make from simple fruits and vegetables,” Marquez said. “I was able to see what I planted come to life and how to incorporate what I learned at home. I really have seen major changes in my eating habits, which is the goal for those that come across the garden at Baptist.”
One of the hospital’s main field trip programs is called “Grow Your Lunch,” in which visitors plant seeds, harvest fruits and vegetables, and cook their own lunch under Squire’s guidance. The food is also used to educate the community through health fairs, cooking demonstrations, wellness workshops and support groups.
Julia Lemus, a guest services representative at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier — another extension of Baptist — says the garden has had a far-reaching impact.
Who thought a hospital would be at the forefront of trying to keep you away from the hospital by focusing on preventive care?
Julia Lemus, employee at Mariners Hospital
“It’s priceless. Who thought a hospital would be at the forefront of trying to keep you away from the hospital by focusing on preventive care like fixing how you eat?” Lemus said.
It has also had an impact on Lemus since she participated in one of the hospital’s workshops, the Homestead resident said, boasting about the Japanese pumpkin soup she made. “I learned how to read food labels and that I don’t have to spend two or three hours in the kitchen. All this because of a simple garden at a local hospital.”
The hospital spends $150,000 a year to operate the farm, Squire said. “It’s not an immediate cost saver for our cafeteria. That’s not the mission, even when we do end up operating on the full 10 acres. The savings is quantified by better quality products and giving our community access to them.”
But it’s easier said then done.
“If you’re low income, you’re less likely to have a car, and if you don’t have a car — and because Miami-Dade has such poor public transportation — it becomes extremely difficult to get your hands on non-processed foods,” Squire said. “And if you live near one of few farm stands, and live in one of the few pedestrian-friendly pockets of the county, chances are that stand doesn’t accept food stamps.”
In 2015, more than 710,500 people — almost 30 percent of the county’s population — were on food stamps, compared to 295,500 people in Broward County, according to the most recent data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
That’s why the goal isn’t to have a full-service cafeteria that serves up food made with ingredients from the garden, but rather a farmers market that accepts food stamps, Squire said.
“We are doing it not so much for feeding them fresh organic food when they’re here in the hospital,” she said, “but we really want folks in our community to eat healthily and have a healthy lifestyle so they avoid those diseases so they don’t have to check in to our hospital to begin with.”