CoxHealth and Springfield Community Gardens are working together to cultivate a healthier community.
A recent grant from the Timken Foundation will allow Amanda Belle’s Farm to establish propagation houses and a vegetable packing facility. The farm, located near Cox South, currently supplies employees (and sometimes the cafeteria salad bar) with fresh produce, according to Jesse Baedke, system director of food services with CoxHealth.
But physical health isn’t the only thing the farm is aiming to fortify: Maile Auterson, executive founding director for SCG, sees it as a path toward remedying social ills as well, and for building a better future.
“We are surrounded by persistent poverty, counties that are struggling with food insecurity. To me, that’s a travesty, because my dad grew up and lived to be 100, and he said, ‘During the (Great) Depression, we all ate like kings,’ so I’m like how, why aren’t we eating now?” Auterson said. “We need to get our food system back, the local food system to make us resilient and provide equity when it comes to eating.”
Putting down solid roots for a sustainable local food system
The grant will fund two projects that help lay the groundwork for Amanda Belle’s Farm to become a model for area producers: propagation and vegetable packing.
This winter, Baedke and Auterson plan on getting the site certified in Good Agriculture Processes, a program through the United States Department of Agriculture that ensures produce is grown, packed, handled and stored in a way that minimizes risk of food safety hazards.
This certification will allow the farm — named for the mother hospital namesake Lester E. Cox — to distribute its produce more widely, and to help more people.
“One thing that we know in food production, that we’ve learned, is that we want our food local and that we can’t have a local food system, we cannot feed the schools and the hospitals and the institutions and train the farmers unless we have the knowledge to pack vegetables safely and we have the infrastructure,” Auterson said.
The propagation houses will allow the farm to become self-sufficient, rather than relying on other places to start seedlings.
“That will allow us to more than double our production, having a prop house on site,” Auterson said. “What we were doing in the past was like, driving the plants over from another garden and putting them in the ground here. For our farm, we are really big on slowing down carbon emissions. It’s been one of our strategic plans to have the sites be self-sufficient.”
Hospital aims to sow habits that improve health
Once the farm receives its GAP certification, Baedke hopes that the hospital can expand its community-supported agriculture program to patients and those who may be food insecure or unable to get fresh vegetables easily.
Through education with dietitians, nutritionists, doctors and nurses, CoxHealth wants to help patients make strides in improving their health.
“We aim to start a program that helps our patients learn how to cook, prepare and store fresh produce and incorporate that into their diets so at the end of the day they can become more healthy, which is a win for them, for our community, a win for everybody,” Baedke said.
This approach is one that Auterson views as particularly important.
“(CoxHealth) wants that easier access for low-income patients, but (they) just don’t give them a box of vegetables and say, ‘Good luck,’” Auterson said. “It’s integrative; they’re building relationships and trust and building healthier diets and how to incorporate that in our diets.”
A study by the University of Missouri and Ozarks Food Harvest found that of families who used food pantries and food banks, 41% have a member with diabetes or pre-diabetes and 60% have a member with high blood pressure. In that same study, nearly two-thirds of the families surveyed said that they purchased the least expensive food in the last 12 months, even if it wasn’t the healthiest.
A major risk factor for chronic illness, like diabetes or high blood pressure, is poor nutrition, including diets low in fruits and vegetables and high in saturated fat and sodium. Poor nutrition can also make those illnesses worse.
“Our goal, what we hope to see our patient population benefit from our program, is those improved health outcomes: reduction in blood pressure, potential reduction in weight and risk for chronic disease for the future,” Baedke said. “It starts from the ground up, it starts with what our farmers will do and it starts with what our dieticians and nutritionists do in regards to education, and the doctors and nurses and the care providers who support all those programs.”
Nurturing the next generation
Fresh, local produce isn’t the only thing growing at Amanda Belle’s Farm: It’s nurturing skills that will help a future generation of farmers thrive.
“There are many projects going on like this in the United States right now but there are only five hospital farms last time I counted,” Auterson said. “The thing that makes ours different is that we’re training farmers; we have an apprenticeship program, an internship program.”
Cameron Bigbee, who left a job at Lowes to become “the guy that plants all the food” at Amanda Belle’s Farm, is eager to see how the project comes together. Bigbee is the son of Fassnight Creek Farms owner and operator Dan Bigbee.
“I really am looking forward to the vision that this is going to end up being. Right now, it’s mostly empty fields, but I can already see three high tunnels there, a wellness center there, a food forest, whatever,” Bigbee said. “It’s a blank canvas. So it’s really cool to see it develop and be a part of it.”
In addition to training farmers, the project also aims to foster a sense of care for the environment with its sustainable practices, in the community as well as individuals.
“That’s the beauty, is Cox saying yes to this small grassroots organization with the intent of promoting health and farming careers for young people, just that holistic approach to being a good steward of the Earth, a good steward of the people, a good steward of the community,” Auterson said. “I think that’s what I’m most happy about. I kind of pinch myself sometimes because they are so willing to work with us.”
Susan Szuch is the health and public policy reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on Twitter @szuchsm. Story idea? Email her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Amanda Belle Farm to expand, teach health and gardening best practices