Patty Jo Toor dreamed of bringing truly fresh food for AdventHealth Celebration. The vice president and chief nursing officer for the Kissimmee, Fla., hospital had long hoped to bring a greenhouse to campus. But after a greenhouse and its space requirements were deemed impractical, she found an alternative: container farming.
The hospital eventually partnered with Freight Farms, which provides 40-foot shipping containers tricked out to grow greens vertically and hydroponically. The Boston company provided the container, the technology to keep it running and staff training, along with ongoing support services, and the hospital started planting in the summer of 2021. The container is stationed in the parking lot.
“The farm is pretty high-tech,” says Sean Toor, who manages the operation. “We can control every part of the farm from our phone, from feeding the plants to controlling the lights and water, nutrients and air flow,” he explains. The main labor element is preparing and harvesting the crops. And the lettuce, for example, is a low-labor variety that requires little preparation to be menu-ready.
The yield is impressive: a 240-square-foot container is capable of producing as much as a 2.5- to 3-acre farm, Toor says. Inside the container, four walls each have 1,000 slots for seedlings. An onsite nursery supplies the plugs, and the seedlings (at least for lettuce) take about four weeks to mature. Unlike conventional ground-based agriculture, this style of growing has no off-season, which explains the high yield.
Because it is a controlled growing environment, “we don’t have to use a lot of chemicals,” Toor says, which means the produce is pesticide-free. Once harvested, the crops are transported to the hospital kitchen, where the nutritional servicesd team cuts, washes and labels them.
So far, the hospital has grown lettuce, kale, bok choy, herbs, radishes and carrots, with new items being slowly introduced. The greens turn up in a variety of places, from salad bars to hot sides, sandwiches and other dishes, to a biweekly employee food pantry.
“Our salad bar gets heavy use on this campus,” says Joseph Quinlan, market director of nutritional services. The farm has reduced lettuce purchases by about 200 pounds a month, he adds. Employees especially love the lettuce; occasionally a substitute shipped-in product is on the salad bar, and they will ask about it, he adds.
Toor points out a number of advantages to growing onsite. Besides the obvious advantage of being able to serve truly farm-fresh ingredients, hyperlocal gardening reduces carbon emissions from deliveries and allows the hospital to control the product throughout the entire process. The enclosed system is also very water efficient, requiring only about eight gallons of water daily.
An added bonus of growing crops onsite: longer shelf life. While shipped-in lettuce might keep for two or three days, “we get seven days,” Quinlan says. “Also, the quality and the taste are better. We’re using a lot of heirloom varieties that have more taste and crunch.”
It also provides supply chain resilience, he adds. “I know I have lettuce and radishes coming every week twice a week,” he says.
Around the time the Freight Farm was introduced, Toor also carved out an outdoor garden that grows tomatoes, banana and bell peppers and rosemary. All the crops are grown from seeds. And a composting program was recently introduced.
Going forward, AdventHealth Celebration would like to expand the ability to feature its homegrown crops in other ways, such as patient dining, and in other locations. The state only allows the products to be offered onsite in limited applications.
“The biggest issue is chain of custody and being able to assure the state that it’s a safe process,” Quinlan says. Eventually, Quinlan says the Freight Farm concept conceivably could expand to other hospitals within the AdventHealth system, possibly with one Freight Farm supplying two hospitals.
Upfront cost of the farm was about $100,000, says Christy Miller, director of the hospital’s Institute for Lifestyle Medicine. Conservatively, it will take about a decade to recoup the investment, sooner if the hospital is allowed to sell the produce at its farmers market.
Introducing the Freight Farm required some adjustments: new containers to store the product properly, finding a way to meet the wi-fi demands of the container technology, reorganizing produce coolers and promoting the new source of fresh food to the staff. The culinary team also ended up with a good problem: finding new ways to use so much fresh product.
Quinlan says he’s seen attempts at rooftop and herb gardens that fizzle out for various reasons, but he thinks this format is a game changer. “Being in foodservice, I was slightly skeptical. But it’s been much more successful than I expected,” he observes.