By Tamara Mathias

A rooftop farm at a medical center in Massachusetts could serve as a model for hospitals that seek to encourage healthy eating, a new report says.

In 2017, Boston Medical Center (BMC) began operating a 2658-square-foot farm on a roof terrace to supply the hospital’s kitchen and food pantry with fresh produce.

The farm grows over 25 crop varieties and makes honey from two beehives. It relies on one full-time farmer, one part-time assistant, a beekeeper and hospital volunteers to help run the farm.

In its first season, the farm grew more than 5200 pounds of produce, including leafy greens, herbs and vegetables, researchers found when they evaluated the farm’s operation.

The farm “struck me as a really interesting, unique way of addressing food insecurity among (patients) while also providing environmental benefits,” said Aviva Musicus of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who coauthored a report on the farm in the American Journal of Public Health.

A “safety net” hospital, BMC mostly serves low-income and elderly patients.

The bulk of the produce from the first season was used in the hospital’s food pantry. Primary care doctors can provide patients who are struggling financially with “food pantry prescriptions,” which allow them to visit the pantry to receive free food for their households.

A fair amount of the farm’s produce was also distributed to the hospital’s kitchen, which used it in patient meals and to prepare food for the cafeteria.

The rooftop farm also led to other initiatives. BMC’s teaching kitchen now has free classes that use fresh produce from the farm to teach employees, patients and their families how to cook healthy meals.

“BMC operates beyond the traditional hospital model,” Musicus told Reuters Health. “Instead of simply treating medical problems, they actively aim to address the upstream causes of those medical problems.”

This farm model “can be replicated by other organizations aiming to alleviate food insecurity, encourage healthy eating, and promote environmental sustainability,” the report says.

“I believe this can be duplicated in any size hospital, you just need to identify the space (and) understand the impact to the community at large is much greater than any potential cost savings,” said co-author David Maffeo, Senior Director of Support Services at BMC.

The study authors say farm-grown vegetables saved BMC about $10,000 that it would otherwise have paid to external vendors.

The farm also helps the hospital reduce its carbon footprint and has boosted its image, which helps attract more donors.

Operating costs for the farm total around $50,000 a year, a sum BMC intends to fund through endowments, donations and grants. The hospital held a fundraiser to cover start-up costs.

Kate Sommerfeld, president of social determinants of health at hospital operator ProMedica, said one of ProMedica’s Michigan-based hospitals runs a farm, too.

“We know that between 40% and 60% of individual health is determined by non-clinical factors. So it’s important that the healthcare industry thinks about issues that impact and drive health like food access and housing. The work that BMC is doing really highlights that evolution,” said Sommerfeld, who was not involved in the Boston farm or the study.

Sommerfeld believes it’s increasingly important to show that such programs have value beyond altruism.

“Connecting these efforts to how they actually improve health outcomes and reduce costs while creating a sustainable business model, especially when margins are tight, is an ongoing challenge,” she said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online June 20, 2019.