St. Joe's Staff Farmer
Dan Bair grows healthy hospital food
by Jeff Mortimer
As an undergrad at the U-M at the turn of the century, Bair put together his own degree program in urban planning, then earned an organic farming certificate at Michigan State. "I thought I was going to start my own business," he says, "but I quickly realized there's not a lot of credit available for people starting small vegetable farms."
After working on an organic farm in Manistee County and for a youth farming program at the Chicago Botanic Garden, he was tempted by a job with a Traverse City company that makes sailboat sails. But "I just love being part of the process of growing food," he says. "Even though farming seemed like it would be really tough and there was this sailboat job that would have given me benefits and health care, I wanted to keep trying."
So Bair became the first urban farm manager for Growing Hope, an AmeriCorps VISTA group in Ypsilanti that runs urban farming and nutrition education programs in schools, as well as managing the Ypsi farmers' market. And then one day, he recalls, he gave a tour of Growing Hope to Steve Thiry, a holistic physician he'd met in "the local food world"; Lisa McDowell, manager of inpatient clinical nutrition at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital; and Dave Raymond, St. Joe's planning director. They were gathering ideas for a farm they envisioned at the hospital. "That began a conversation which led to me coming on as a contractor, helping figure out what we were going to do here," Bair says. And that led to his being hired to manage St. Joe's farm, which now comprises about twenty-five acres and three hoop houses.
Most of its crops never leave the hospital campus. "We have integrated some basics into regular recipes," McDowell says. "You'll see tomatoes and herbs and garlic [in patient meals] all summer long, and occasionally radishes, carrots, and peppers. Over the winter months, you'll see kale, spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard
that we grow in the hoop houses."
Produce from the farm and other local farms also is sold at a weekly market in the hospital's main lobby and is available at one of the lobby food carts on non-market days. The farm's activities have been incorporated into educational programs for schools, scout troops, patients, and student dietitians doing internships at the hospital.
"What we produce on the farm cannot meet the needs of what our chefs require" to feed the hospital's hundreds of patients, McDowell acknowledges. But she's passionate about it being "more than a dog-and-pony show.
"It provides food, but it also provides us the means to deliver an educational message," she explains. "We've had patients with eating disorders and pediatric obesity come out, pick produce from a hoop house, and take it over to the culinary studio and prepare meals. We're very committed to not feeding our patients to be future patients."
This year, Bair says, he's "planting grapes and raspberries. We'll put in some trellises right in front of the farm so you can see them when you drive up." More fruit will eventually be forthcoming from the pear, cherry, and apple trees planted in the newest hoop house, which was built last summer.
Beginning this spring, the trees will be tended in part by traumatic brain injury patients: trees take up less floor space, which means more room for wheelchairs, and they're easier for people with mobility issues to reach. The house also features raised plant beds, some of them installed on what look like water wheels that can be rotated with cranks for easier access.
Like Bair's job, the handicap-accessible hoop house is believed to be the first of its kind.
[Originally published in June, 2013.]