Why UPMC opened a farm on a hospital campus

Farming began as a hobby for KimberLee Mudge, MD, a breast surgeon at UPMC Memorial in York, Pa., and it has now turned into an initiative designed to improve the health of people throughout Central Pennsylvania.

Dr. Mudge is behind UPMC Memorial's Farm to Hospital initiative, an exploration into holistic healthcare funded by the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation and supported in collaboration with UPMC in Central Pennsylvania, and York Fresh Food Farms. Patients and staff at UPMC Memorial enjoy farm-fresh produce every day at the hospital's cafe from a farm operating on the hospital campus. 

A full-time farm manager and a part-time farming assistant employed by UPMC Pinnacle Foundation in collaboration with YFFF take care of daily operations. A trail and the Breast Cancer Garden of Hope also sit near the farm.

"Everything is right on our campus, and that really creates that model of wellness," Dr. Mudge told Becker's. "We lead by example. As people come to our campus or drive by our campus, they see the trail, the Breast Cancer Garden of Hope, and the greenhouses are along a major conduit that brings people to our campus. So whatever we grow comes literally up the hill and into our kitchen."

The concept of Farm to Hospital has been seen recently in healthcare. AdventHealth Celebration (Fla.) is also implementing the idea. At UPMC Memorial, the idea for the initiative started with the trail. UPMC Memorial, which has 98 beds and 24 long-term acute care beds, was built in 2019 on an old golf course, and cart paths from the old golf course were paved to create the trail. People used the trail to exercise during the pandemic, and eventually enough money was raised to establish the Breast Cancer Garden of Hope.

The garden "along with the trail promoted emotional well-being and therapy, and then fast forward a couple more years and in November, we rolled out our greenhouses with a goal of mass production of very wholeful plant-forward foods that can be rolled into our hospital and beyond into the community," Dr. Mudge said. "I think our campus is really unique because it fits all three pinnacles of what wellness is — exercise, emotional health and nutrition." 

The first harvest was at the end of January and early February. The produce is grown in greenhouses that are each about 50 yards long, which serves as a controlled environment where the full-time farm manager and his team can regulate water and temperature. 

"We have these contained greenhouses that allow us to grow all year round," Dr. Mudge explained. "The farmer will rotate crops based on seasons. So far, we have grown [produce such as] red beets, yellow beets, spinach, [and] kale."

The goal is to produce 10,000 pounds of produce annually. 

"And we're on target," said Dr. Mudge. "So what will happen and what is happening is as produce is harvested, it's taken up the hill to our cafe, and it becomes part of the cafe menu. We also have a farmers market that will expand in the near future. [Additionally], we very soon will be rolling out a plant-based option on the inpatient menu and will be initiating cooking classes that will be targeting wellness."

Stephanie Benamor, lead communications specialist with the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation, told Becker's those involved in the initiative are also discussing possibly following the journey of several patients to see how the interaction with fresh food would affect them. 

"Part of this produce goes to the local Community Supported Agriculture programs, so there are probably people already benefiting from this produce [in the community]. It's being taken to food banks. It's definitely feeding people who need it," Ms. Benamor said.

Ms. Benamor and Dr. Mudge agreed that it's too early to gauge specific effects on patient outcomes as a result of the initiative. However, they pointed to the enthusiasm they've seen about the initiative. 

"York County is a county that tends to have a lot of overweight patients. If we can tackle, leading by example, healthfulness with these three pillars, then we're setting an example and engaging all ages of the population," Dr. Mudge said. "We've got Eagle Scouts putting projects on the trail. We hope to have school-age kids coming to learn about nature and also tour the farm. We'll have our farmers market, and we're already selling out our fresh produce. The buzz is palpable."

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