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Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital Opens Organic Greenhouse, Hires Resident Farmer

WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP -- Talk about cutting the distance from farm to fork.

Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield Township has built a $1 million greenhouse on its 160-acre campus to grow fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for use in the hospital year-around, and has hired a "resident farmer" to tend it.

The greenhouse complex, including an education center, was funded entirely by an anonymous donor. The greenhouse will provide clinically based educational programs for a variety of audiences, including children, to make a significant impact on the growing epidemic of obesity.

Michelle Lutz, resident farmer at the hospital, is growing a wide variety of produce in the greenhouse, including tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, peas, beans, strawberries, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, and herbs.

With more than 16 years of experience, Lutz is the former co-owner of certified organic vegetable Maple Creek Farm in Yale, a resource for Henry Ford West Bloomfield since it opened in 2009.

Building a greenhouse and hiring a resident farmer at a hospital was the brainstorm of Gerard van Grinsven, president and CEO of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

"Our goal is to be a national model for how wellness education can improve health and reduce health care costs by providing people with resources to help them achieve optimal health," says van Grinsven.

The produce being grown in the greenhouse is projected to reduce food costs at the hospital by more than $20,000 per year, while providing patients with healthy meals.

Lutz joined Henry Ford in November, providing input into the type of crops and how they would be grown. In June, she started planting organic seeds.

"On a typical day in the greenhouse, I'm making sure the crops receive proper nutrients, starting seeds to provide a continuous supply of lettuce, and monitoring for plant health, insects, and signs of disease," she said.

The greenhouse uses hydroponics -- growing plants in water, instead of soil -- to maximize diversity, and maintain space for patients, staff and visitors.

Lutz explains that the benefit to hydroponics is that growers have more control over plant health, with recirculating systems using only 10 percent of the water needed in soil-based farming. The grower delivers exactly what the plants need daily in organic nutrients, and risks from pests and diseases are reduced. Beneficial insects are released when necessary to control harmful insects. And, with no soil, there are no weeds.

"The accelerated growth that hydroponic growing promises is true," says Lutz. "I have never seen such plant production in such a small space. Some early visitors to the greenhouse are considering trying hydroponics at their homes."

In addition to feeding patients, the produce is used in the hospital's 90-seat Demonstration Kitchen, where healthy cooking classes are offered to the community, and Henry's cafe. They are also sold at Henry Ford West Bloomfield's seasonal weekly farmers' market, which is open to the public.

"I work closely with our chefs so they know what is being grown and when it will be available," says Lutz.  "And I am open to their suggestions as to what they would like to see grown."

A cooler in the hospital's kitchen has a section reserved for produce from the greenhouse. A nearby message board lets the chefs know what is available.

From the harvest to the plate is less than 24 hours.

"I am growing crops now that enjoy warm weather," she says. "As it gets cooler, I'll grow produce that prefers those conditions, to grow in a sustainably responsible way all year."

Additional plantings in the soil surrounding the greenhouse are planned.

Tours of the greenhouse are available seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with in-depth tours and workshops by appointment. The attached educational center will also be available for events.

Plans include a steady stream of school field trips, so that children can learn better nutrition, which can prevent childhood obesity, and many chronic diseases.

Gardening therapy will allow patients to take a role in their recovery while learning how they may prevent or manage chronic diseases through healthy growing, and eating practices.  The space will be available for physical, occupational and behavioral therapy, as well as a place of respite for staff and people visiting loved ones in the hospital.

"Food has an impact on human health, and on environmental health," says Lutz. "This is only the beginning."

The greenhouse will open on Saturday, Sept. 15, with an event featuring Food Network Star Ellie Krieger, who will be hosting a healthy cooking demonstration and NBA Champion and kidney transplant recipient Alonzo Mourning. Mourning will be sharing his insights with Michigan's first Surgeon General, Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, chief wellness officer, Henry Ford Health System. Detroit Pistons rookie Kim English will also be in attendance.

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