The Farm at St. Joe’s: Expanding an innovative farm-to-institution food system. (2017)

Client Organization: 
The Farm at St. Joe’s Hospital
Project Location : 
St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Campus, 5555 McAuley Drive Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Summary of Project Idea: 


Saint Joseph Mercy Health System (SJMHS) has signed the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge committing to the goal of providing local, nutritious and sustainable food. In so doing they dedicate themselves to improving the health of their community by modeling good nutrition and influencing how food is produced and distributed.

One means of fulfilling this pledge is the operation of a commercial-scale farm on the hospital campus. On April 14, 2010 a horse drawn-plow broke ground on the first four acres of The Farm at St. Joe’s (the Farm). Volunteers have since constructed three 30’x 96’ hoop-houses, allowing for crops to be grown year-round. The Farm has expanded to include perennial plantings, a community garden and alfalfa fields. Altogether the Farm has converted almost 25 acres of lawn into arable farmland, but their goal is to grow beyond this physical site.

Building a people-centered health system can be accomplished by approaching work through three points of entry: the individual (Self), the hospital and local community (Other), and the larger social and environmental context (World). Growing a healthy community begins by enabling individuals to foster their personal wellness. Patients, staff, and visitors should feel better after their interactions with SJMHS, both physically and mentally. Once the individual is cared for, they have the capacity to tend to their relationships and communities. The individual who feels able-bodied and resilient can give their attention to their colleagues, family members and larger community, and provide support to those networks. Finally, the health of the hospital community enables the Farm to organize around larger community and environmental efforts. A healthy hospital community is better able to be active stewards of its people and places.

The Farm offers numerous programs and services that attend to the health of individuals, communities, and environments. On their own, each program or service improves the health and resilience of SJMHS’s people, communities and spaces. Together, they help the Farm to continue its innovative healing presence and to contribute to 21st century healthcare.

They text below is from the Farm’s recent draft strategic plan. It was prepared as part of an envisioning exercise and the text reads as if all programs listed are fully developed. However, many of the programs mentioned are in their early stages of development, all will need to be enhanced as part of a push to develop healthcare for the 21st century, and all will require assistance to fulfill their vision.

Education - The Farm hosts tours of its facilities, classroom field trip, summer camp group visits, University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University dietetic interns and University of Michigan undergraduate research opportunity program interns. They partner with the SJMHS ShapeDown program, Health Exploration Station and Cooking Matters program to promote balanced nutrition for children and their families. The Farm plans to partner with Growing Hope in Ypsilanti to co-create farm visit curricula for both sites. They also share skills with and offer assistance to their Brighton Residency Garden, and work with the SJMHS Graduate Medical Education program.

Farm-to-Institution Discourse - The Farm began as, and remains, an innovator of farm-to-institution food systems. The Farm is Michigan's first hospital-based farm and has both inspired and continues to learn from other farming initiatives on healthcare campuses. It has been cited by the Rodale Institute as an early adopter and exemplar, and the inspiration for their own hospital-based-farm in Pennsylvania. The Farm actively promotes a dialog on the role of food systems in community healthcare. It co-sponsors such events as the annual HomeGrown Festival, and Local Food Summit, hosted an on-site Fall Open House, and has partnered with the University of Michigan’s Environmental Psychology Laboratory in its ongoing effort to improve its impact. The Farm is planning to host a conference of similar hospital-based farms to explore the next stage of farm-to-institution food and wellness-based initiatives.

Wellness/Therapy - As part of SJMHS’s broader wellness initiatives, the Farm works closely with the ShapeDown and Health Exploration Station programs, and Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s Wellness Coordinator. They collaborate with the Prescription Medicine Program (Brighton), the Graduate Medical Education program, and Washtenaw County Prescription for Health (AIM clinic). As a unique on-site space, the Farm also offers opportunities for health system staff team-building. Their unique partnership with the Eisenhower Center provides an accessible, nurturing space for traumatic brain injury clients and hospital rehab patients to participate in therapy and relaxation. The Farm also has a presence on the Ypsilanti Community Schools’ Coordinated School Health Team and the Ann Arbor Farm-to-School Collaborative. They seek to cultivate partnerships within the health system and the community that build synergy in an effort to increase community wellness.

  • The Wellness/Therapy programs are focused on self-care and stress reduction with the intent of maintaining an effective and vibrant work force. The Farm itself has multiple areas designed for improving the psychological and social wellbeing of individuals, both in solo and group sessions.
  • The Wellness/Therapy programs are one of the Farm’s strongest areas of service to vulnerable individuals, offering space and support for patients’ mental health. It also strengthens the connection between the Farm and the staff at SJMHS by drawing hospital staff to the site for a variety of activities and by offering team-building exercises. Finally, these programs strengthen the bonds between the Farm and the wider community through partnerships with schools and other local wellness and therapy programs.

The Farmers’ Market - The Farm aims to produce quality, locally-grown produce that generates an individual experience with food and its source. In addition to selling delicious, healthy, locally-grown produce, the Farm leverages market days to provide information about nutrition through samples and recipe cards, education programs, and local, seasonal food choices. The farmers’ market is often the Farm’s first point-of-contact to an individual. At a minimum, the produce made available at the weekly farmers’ market will endeavor to serve the physical and mental health of those patients, staff, and visitors who attend market. People who come to the Farm walk away with fresh food for their kitchen, as well as connections with their farmer and their hospital.

Volunteer Program - The Farm works with members of the community who contribute as scheduled and ongoing work-day volunteers for both general farm work and special projects. Many Farm programs are volunteer-led, including the raised-bed and fairy gardens, the pollinator garden, the butterfly garden and the honey bee hives.

Environmental Stewardship - The Farm is an active agent of environmental stewardship. Among its many sustainable practices are the improvement of SJMHS’ natural resources by converting lawn into arable farmland and the facilitation of environmentally-friendly hospital practices such as zero-waste events. They serve on the hospital’s Green Team and partner with the Wellness CPT to contribute to sustainability decisions and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. The Farm intends to become more involved in waste reduction in the near future through various composting and vermiculture programs. In addition to reducing waste and generating a marketable compost product, these programs can become functional educational opportunities.

Community Garden - The Farm provides an opportunity and resources for hospital staff to tinker in their own garden space. The community garden rents small plots of prepared land to hospital staff and local residents for personal gardens. These spaces are used by individuals interested in growing their own food and flowers, and by groups interested in learning to garden together. In the close quarters of a community garden, the sharing of skills and insights becomes easier even among people of very different backgrounds and vocations.

Staff and Group Engagement - The Farm hosts departmental team-building and work retreats for SJMHS staff. There are also non-hospital groups in the area with similar training needs. The Farm’s staff work with all these groups to craft customized service, education and team-building activities. The Farm also collaborates with the hospital’s Wellness Coordinator, partnering with the hospital’s wellness and fitness initiatives, nutrition and culinary education programs, and mindfulness-based activities.

Food Distribution - Food grown on the SJMHS campus is meant to be shared and is therefore made available through a number of access points. Farm fresh produce is sold in a weekly hospital farmers’ market, the hospital’s cafeteria and deli, and the unique venue of the Argus Farm Stop in downtown Ann Arbor. The Farm provides several programs for on-site food distribution including a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program open to hospital residents, and the Healthy Snack CSA for SJMHS departments. Produce grown on-site is regularly donated to Food Gatherers, the Huron Oaks residential facility, and the SJMHS ShapeDown weight management program.

All of the programs listed above need research, development and programming assistance. There are contained within the list numerous separate, yet potentially interacting, Master’s Projects. The Farm is in a stage of programmatic growth with a new educational building being planned for rapid construction. New project ideas are being developed every month by the farm manager and hospital wellness coordinator.

Listed below are projects that could be developed as small or larger-team efforts and scoped to fit within a 16-month timeframe. A couple have begun as small pilot-projects this term (Fall 2015) in the Environmental Psychology Lab (2034 Dana); findings from this pilot work would provide a starting point for a Master’s project. Other projects are possible, emerging out of conversations with the farm manager and/or the hospital wellness coordinator.

  1. Needs Assessment – Conduct a needs assessment and prepare a project schedule around the county-wide needs related to healthy food access, nutritional education, behavior change and psychological/social wellness. Build off of the Washtenaw County Health Assessment.
  2. Education Program Evaluation – Develop and conduct an evaluation of education programs aimed at improving school children’s knowledge of and behavior related to food, nutrition and wellness.
  3. Volunteer Recruitment, Management and Retention – Modify an existing volunteer management system to enhance the volunteers’ experience and create a multi-level volunteer mentor program whereby experiences volunteers would mentor novices.
  4. Interpretive Signage – Develop and implement a signage system serving both educational and functional needs (e.g., volunteer orientation, visitor navigation).
  5. Farm-to-Institution Conference – Assist in developing and hosting a professional conference on the role and effect of agricultural programs at institutional sites. 
  6. Wellness/Therapy Program – Work with the hospital’s wellness coordinator to create and evaluate projects aimed at providing billable therapeutic care and enhancing community wellness that utilize the Farm’s site.
SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Raymond De Young
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Cassidy Dellorto-Blackwell, MS Behavior, Education and Communication/Conservation Ecology 
  • Lauren Highleyman, MS Behavior, Education and Communication 
Project Status: 
Past Project