E-News Exclusive

Gardening for Better Health

By Lindsey Getz

A Wisconsin hospital harvests a bounty to serve more healthful meals.

As more hospitals revamp their menus and offer healthier fare, many are turning to local food suppliers. But UW Health Partners Watertown Regional Medical Center in Watertown, Wisconsin, has taken this a step further and created an 11,000-sq ft garden in its own backyard.

“When we first started talking about growing some of our own produce, our vision was a small raised garden off the back of our kitchen—only a 10-ft by 10-ft kind of space,” says Chef Justin Johnson. “But the more we talked about our desire to use local ingredients and make fresh food the centerpiece of our menu, the more we realized that growing it ourselves would eliminate the middleman and be our ideal solution. So we started looking at the property the hospital owned. We found a patch below a hill in the parking lot which was about a football field size.”

Now the hospital grows almost anything one can imagine growing in Wisconsin weather. Various types of peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce are popular picks as are potatoes, celery, carrots, pumpkin, and squash. These ingredients are slowly replacing processed and boxed foods that were once used regularly.

The hospital also is planning to open a restaurant to serve staff, patients, and visitors. Johnson recently finished developing a 12-week culinary class that all of his cooks will have to complete to be eligible to work at the restaurant. The idea, Johnson says, is to get everyone comfortable cooking with fresh ingredients instead of boxed potatoes or other prepared mixes.

“Our focus is on fresh and made in-house,” Johnson says. “We want to be able to proudly say that there’s nothing in our food that we didn’t put in there. Healthy to us doesn’t mean it has to be made of all barley and flax. We’re cutting back on unnecessary heavy creams, salt, and sugar, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never see those ingredients used in moderation. To us it’s about fresh food that we produced ourselves.”

Johnson works closely with the staff dietitian in preparing his recipes and menus. “Her office is just five feet away, and it makes it easy to ask her if there’s something I should adjust or substitute,” he says. “I think it’s great for chefs and dietitians to have a working relationship. I used to view dietitians as an obstacle in my industry, but now I see they can be a great partner and a wonderful resource when it comes to making dishes as balanced and smart as possible.”

The approach the hospital is taking is one of overall wellness. Johnson says the focus is on “health care” not “sick care,” and the hospital is putting more emphasis on healthful living at home. Part of that includes a new demonstration kitchen.

“When a cardiac patient is discharged, we can bring him or her down to our demonstration kitchen, and I can cook a couple of dishes in front of them so they can see something they can make at home,” Johnson says. “Therefore they’re not leaving the hospital after a heart attack and having a frozen pizza at home. We want to show people that taking good care of themselves is doable. It’s our goal to make sure our patients are educated and can make the best health decisions, even when they’re at home. We hope that starting those healthful habits here will make a difference in their lives.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.