by Jackie Cobbs | photos by Ree Slocum
Hospital food is known for being bland and boring cafeteria food—flavorless chicken beside soupy mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables that came from a freezer bag, with some Jell-O for dessert. Wouldn’t fresh, organic food be more appetizing and help put you on the path to wellness?
That’s what Ananda Johnson, the director of Commonwealth Garden, thought when she decided to grow food for patients at the new Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits. But she had no clue how difficult it would really be.
“It hasn’t been just a walk in the park,” Johnson says, “and it certainly has been a long shot since when I first came up with the idea and said, ‘wouldn’t it be neat to grow food for the hospital?’ It was very naïve. The reality is you have to be registered, you have to have certifications.” Despite the demanding complexity of the process, Johnson persevered, and today Commonwealth Garden has been growing food for the hospital for four years.
The process of starting the garden has been a long one. Back in 2006, community volunteers wrote up a business plan and presented it to the Howard Foundation, which approved the project. Then Johnson had to come into compliance at the state level where the regulations are stricter than those applied to organic farms. “Once a year, the garden is inspected by the state to ensure that everything is organic—from the soil, seeds, fertilizer, and compost, to the washing, packaging, and delivery,” explains Mellisa Bouley, the garden’s supervisor.
The Commonwealth Garden broke ground in more ways than one. It is the first of its kind in the nation. There are other hospitals that purchase organic food, but this is the only garden directly growing food for their patients. And many of the patients seem to notice the difference. The fresh, healthy meals aren’t your typical hospital food. Johnson jokes that several people have been reported as saying, “Could you not check me out until after lunch so I can get another meal?”
It’s not just the quality of the ingredients that is so exceptional. The meals are prepared by talented chef Kyle Evans. Chef Kyle takes the organic produce that is grown at the Commonwealth Garden and creates healthy, delicious meals for the patients at Howard Memorial, as well as the adjoining restaurant, Roots. He tries to create comfort food that will inspire people to eat healthy even after leaving the hospital.
The journey from garden to hospital room had its challenges on the food preparation end, too. Each item has to have its nutrient data compiled and then approved by the hospital nutritionist. Evans and Johnson have been working together to find what foods work best. Each item has to be cost effective, safe, and healthy for the patients.
“It’s been a learning curve. One year the garden grew tons of kale, but then we learned that kale has high levels of vitamin K, which fights with blood thinning drugs,” Chef Kyle says. “Another year they grew lots of garlic, but I found that buying peeled garlic cloves was much more cost effective than paying my employees to process the garlic from the garden,” he adds.
Evans and Johnson are working to find a happy medium that works for the garden and the hospital. Johnson finds what they can grow most efficiently, then Evans fills out the rest with food suppliers.
The dedication of these two, along with unbelievable community support, has made the Commonwealth Garden the first in the nation to be certified for growing food for hospital patients—particularly impressive when you consider that California has even more regulations than the rest of the country. “This community is amazing; the amount of money that is raised here is incredible for its size. That’s why it’s so hard to duplicate elsewhere,” Arnie Mello, Executive Director of the Frank R. Howard Foundation, explains. Volunteering and donations of both money and supplies from the community have made the project possible, along with funding from the Howard Foundation, the hospital, William and Judith Bailey, and multiple grants.
As a secondary benefit, the Commonwealth Garden feeds those outside the hospital, too. They donate produce and vegetable starts to the Willits senior center, food bank, and schools as well as through Sparetime Supply and their farm stand.
Johnson’s original idea to grow food for hospital patients has become so much bigger than she first dreamed. It shows people what a community can accomplish when it works together, and it serves as an example to other hospitals that want to offer organic, local food to their patients.
The Commonwealth Garden farm stand is open Friday afternoons, across the street from Howard Memorial Hospital.