“Bronx” and “farm” probably don’t appear in the same breath too often, but a hospital system in the New York City borough aims to rectify that. St. Barnabas Hospital, part of the SBH Health System, set up a rooftop farm at its Health and Wellness Center.
The farm sits atop one of two towers that comprise the center, which combines affordable housing, healthcare services and a fitness center. New York nonprofit organization Project EATS, known for bringing urban farms to neighborhoods lacking access to fresh produce, runs the rooftop operation.
The farm is intended to underscore the importance of better eating habits to community residents, both within and around the Health and Wellness Center. “We really wanted to build on our healthcare campus reputation, as a place not to come only for sick care but for well care,” says Irene Kaufmann, senior vice president with SBH. “We’re here to keep you well, and we provide access to programs, services and activities that will support you in your wellness journey.”
Food insecurity and simple access to fresh food have been persistent problems for the community. “It’s not just a question of people not having the resources to purchase fresh food; there aren’t many places to buy it,” Kaufmann notes.
The 5,000 sq ft farm, which started producing in 2019, yields collard greens, herbs, garlic, kale, lettuces, micro greens, root vegetables, peppers, peas and string beans. During the latest summer growing season, it produced 4,400 pounds of food. Some 250,000 bees in three active beehives on the roof also supply honey. And greenhouse provides a space for seedling development.
“It’s a lovely farm, on the seventh level, and it has a fantastic view of the Bronx,” Kaufmann says.
All that bounty gets put to good use. The second floor houses a 3,800 sq ft commercial-grade kitchen. It’s set up with multiple stations for classes that show how to handle and prepare meals using fresh produce. “Over and over we’ve seen that just providing access (to fresh produce) is not enough; we need programs that encourage and engage our community base to make the most of the opportunity,” Kaufmann says.
Patients aren’t the only students in the cooking classes.
“We want all our clinicians to be involved and take these classes so they’re not just talking about food but have a one-on-one relationship with it,” Kaufmann says. Too often, healthcare providers are ill-equipped to advise patients about nutrition, and the classes teach them about the kinds of menus that might benefit their patients with chronic diseases.
The kitchen offers a regular schedule of classes, which is posted on the Health and Wellness Center website, as well as custom programs for local organizations interested in hosting teambuilding events.
A portion of the harvest also ends up at a seasonal farm stand in the Health and Wellness Center lobby, so it’s front and center for building and community residents. Clinicians can provide “prescriptions” for patients who have chronic conditions or are food insecure to purchase items sold at the stand, where they receive deep discounts. Community residents eligible for government food assistance can also shop at the stand, which typically stays open into the fall, when the harvest tends to dwindle.
A farm share program also allows individuals and families to purchase weekly orders of food ahead of time—basically community supported agriculture. That helps the Project EATS farmers plan crops more accurately.
Finally, a food pantry at the facility combines grocery items with fresh produce from the farm.
“The whole orientation is to create a center of healthcare and wellness activities as well as support for one of the most persistent and extensive programs across our community, which is food insecurity,” Kaufmann says. “We know we need to reach people in different ways. This is one of the reasons we have these various food programs available,” she adds.
Kaufmann says the farm would not have materialized without the collaboration with Project EATS. “We had the facility and the notion of wellness and addressing food insecurity; they had a very similar vision, but needed a place to grow their vegetables and reach the community. This was a perfect marriage,” she says.