This being an official day of summer with reflection, bbqs, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables I decided to reprint a recent article I wrote about connecting to #farming and #foodservice. Enjoy!

A bold foodservice goal should be to improve the health and well-being of communities by creating long term systematic changes. These changes will provide future generations a better understanding of the importance of eating nutrient-dense foods and a clearer picture of farming, agriculture strategies and food.

Over the last 10 years, gardening has become more of a trend than a fad in the non-commercial market segments. I have read many listserv discussions on the whysand ‘how’s’ of this trend. I started to think about whether consumers are connected to their food. Do they know where it comes from? Does it make a difference to them?

I Interviewed leadership in healthcare, schools, colleges, and business and industry market segments that have gotten involved with agriculture and gardening initiatives, and their effects and benefits on the populations that they cater to daily. I discovered that each groups’ motivation depended on the population served. Major drivers included cultivating food awareness, exciting audiences about food, the taste of food, and foods connection to agriculture.

Caren Etling, RN, at Meramec Elementary School has a program that includes gardening and livestock components. Along with every grade and department in the school, families, neighbors, and community partners are also involved. Their garden also has an indoor worm cafe and three worm towers. The Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Garden takes cafeteria waste, such as lettuce, celery, carrots, and onions, and re-grows them for garden planting! This program increased knowledge, changed picky eaters into good eaters, increased physical activity, and influenced grocery store purchases.

In addition, Meramec provided the families that adopted the garden (in the summer) and community neighbors with approximately 5-7 pounds of weekly produce. Initially, no one could see the connection between the garden and its benefits on students’ attendance, test scores, emotional satisfaction, or the connection between the garden and those in the community. However, Caren saw that healthy children are better learners. Funding, closed mindsets and receptivity were her biggest obstacles. Research further supports these findings, suggesting that for children and young adults, the combination of childhood and recent gardening experiences are associated with greater current F/V intake (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Volume 118, Issue 2, February 2018, Pages 275-283).

Yale University’s sustainable program provides a space where academic theories and discussions come to life. Their primary clientele includes Yale professors and students, who work on and visit the farm as a complement to their classroom experience. Their campus farm serves, in part, to connect urban people to the rural lands that feed them. Farms in urban spaces are crucial education tools and remind us that land management is key to healthy ecologies and economies.

At Commvault, General Manager, Eamon Manley, fosters a connection between food, farmers and agriculture. Guests are exposed to the gardens and gain a better as an understanding of the farmers and agriculture connection. When the site utilized their garden produce – salad bar, pizza station toppings and chef stations – in their foodservice, the resulting benefits included further engagement about gardening and tastings.

Kerry Gold, Foodservice Director, New Milford Hospital has taken a holistic, preventive approach and has embraced their innovative and successful Plow to Plate program. Central to the program’s mission is connecting food to growing and that the consumption of food to healing. The growing of vegetables and herbs on site, to supplement the kitchen’s menus and connect farm, food and healing went together. Gold uses aeroponic growing towers that are placed on the roof and can supplement the kitchen’s menu with freshly picked fruits and vegetables. At Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, Dan Skay’s  interest in food and agriculture gave him the impetus to create gardens as part of the hospital environment. Farming with 95 plots for community members to harvest themselves and a 15,000- square-foot garden, about 8,000 pounds of produce makes its way into the community each season. In addition, this initiative allowed them to embrace and adopt a” less meat” philosophy and utilize more plant-based recipes. At this site, they are adding hydroponic greenhouse to increase their growing power.

Michael Atanasio, Manager at Overlook Medical Center wanted to create a tie into their sustainability and healthy initiative programs within their organization. He engaged the internal and external communities to get involved and set up educational program for young and old alike. The foodservice maintains a community garden and encourages others in the community to have an opportunity to garden for themselves. They also donate much of the proceeds to those in need in the community. Michael feels these initiatives show a healthier and more socially responsible way to eat. Michael engaged his hospital involvement in beekeeping with selling byproducts of honey, soap and lip balms in their retail environments. He feels the greatest benefit is for youngsters and young adults and the more we can educate, the better the positive habits sticking throughout their adulthood.

Additionally, these suggestions were able to connect food to farming:

  • Offer of free infused water in lobbies that features herbs and/or vegetables
  • Try-Days” in the cafeteria and if popular enough added to the menu
  • Weekly Farmer’s Market to sell and educate
  • Culinary demonstrations with products that are produced and engage peoples’ taste buds and knowledge base.
  • Offer field days to the gardens and/or to viewing honey bee hives.
  • Showcase produce in salad and condiment bars, as well in in baked pasta and breakfast fruit parfaits or oatmeal bars.

Overall from the interviews the catalyst(s) for gardening initiatives were tied to either other ongoing sustainability, environmental and healthy initiative programs within the organization, the ability to build and create community and staff educational programs, the building of brand and better connection to community and/or the enhance healing and mindfulness environments by enhancing the beauty and ambience of outside and inside seating and dining.

The major influencers of gardens were driven by leadership and in many specifically foodservice leadership. Once permission was approved, then the space, staff and stakeholders were further engaged on the process and secured “buy in. Sites’ leadership believe that having gardens, bees or any agriculture initiative can open an awareness and understanding of how food is grown and the time and process that goes into producing produce, honey.

The positive effects of gardens show a healthier and more socially responsible way to eat and it also shows the ease in which this can be accomplished. The more we can teach through these types of experiences coupled with a connection and understanding of our food supply chain (seeds to farmers, to the manufacturers to the consumer people will better experience with food.

health, food (2)


The types and number of crops grown in these operations were based on time, labor, who lead the initiative, region, land appropriated, and/or staffing capabilities. Many sites engaged in outside gardens, hydroponic, year-round with solar, and/or aeroponics growing towers. They varied in location but major growing categories were herbs (basil, lemon thyme, cilantro, sage, mint), vegetables (lettuce, soybeans, tomato, broccoli rabe, beets, herbs, varieties of tomatoes including beefsteaks, heirlooms, grape & cherries), eggplants (Italian, Japanese & White Ghosts), various types of peppers, cucumbers & squash, jalapeno peppers, green peppers, squash, kale, broccoli, cabbage, carrots; fruits (e.g. blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries) and flower blooms.

The use of the herbs, vegetable, fruits and honey produced within sites varied depending upon the operation, but all stated, that what was produced wasn’t enough to feed their entire populations. However, the produce could supplement the cafeteria, patient, resident and/or retail foodservices.

All who were interviewed stated it pays to get started even if it’s only a few raised garden beds or growing tower. Once you get started the engagement and exposure for foodservice is noticeable.

Who should maintain the gardens?

  • Hospitals: solicit staff from the hospital to volunteer, nutrition services associates, or the hospital’s grounds crew.
  • Senior Living: staff, volunteers, and seniors
  • K-12 Schools: engaged students, parents, neighbors, or community partners maintain the garden.
  • Colleges: Undergraduate students, hired staff, educators. foodservice
  • Business & Industry sites: Foodservice staff

The cost was minimal for these initiatives. The benefits for brand and increasing fruits and vegetables consumptions outweigh the costs of running a garden/farm. However, there is the availability of grants that underwrite any costs. Another way is to partner with associations that want to include outreach in their communities.

Getting started

  1. Jump and take off. There are also many grants available. Get creative in the funding, and maintenance of gardens.
  2. Make sure that you develop a clear concise communication marketing strategy to internal and external stakeholders: market the what, where, when and whys of the program(s).
  3. Do it! Just make sure that you do your homework and make connections with all the stakeholders, including possible community partners! There are many free resources and eager partners!
  4. Focus on the outcome to support this initiative. For schools and colleges, it was healthier children and students who became better learners!
  5. Farms can be used in myriad ways. Begin by selecting, perhaps, one audience or constituency. For example, our goal is to enrich classroom learning at Yale for undergraduate students. If we were aiming to enrich the Yale employee experience, the experience of public school children, or dining hall workers, our farm and program would look very different. For sure, we do enrich all the constituents mentioned, but through the lens of working with undergraduates.  Farms are such versatile spaces, it’s easy to try and do too much for too many people.
  6. If you cant’ go outside due to whatever the circumstances they stay inside and use vertical space for farming
  7. Build some raised garden beds to complement outside eating area. The smell of herbs can entice and enrich guests’ environments.

This sentiment expressed by Thorp and Townsend’s research (2001) concludes that, gardening changes the status of food for all involved. When one gardens, food can no longer be viewed as a mere commodity for consumption; we are brought into the ritual of communal goodness that is found at the intersection of people and plants. Food that we grow with our own hands becomes a portal for personal transformation (Thorp & Townsend, 2001, p. 357).

Gardening can stimulate the five senses and can-do wonders for connecting people to make healthier choices, increase consumption of servings of fruits and vegetables, educate and expand the understanding the connection to the land and the farmer, illustrate the health and taste difference, cultivate food conscious campuses. Ultimately, environmental stewardship, and community and social development can foster an increase sense of well-being.

Thank you to the following organizations for sharing their expertise and insights for this article.

  • Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, Castlerock, CO
  • Commvault Corporate Headquarters, Tinton Falls, NJ
  • Grays Harbor Community Hospital, Aberdeen, WA
  • Littleton Adventist Hospital, Centura Health, Littleton, CO
  • Meramec Elementary School, Clayton, MO
  • New Milford Hospital, New Milford, Conn
  • Overlook Medical center, Summit, NJ
  • Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Written by Marsha Diamond, MA, RDN is a foodservice consultant who can  retool, reignite, or reengage your business


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s