Spokane Journal of Business

Rooftop-grown greens help Sacred Heart spice up menu

Hospital starts using herbs cultivated on its campus in its cafeteria offerings

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-—Staff photo by Katie Ross
Sacred Heart's Michelle Duke and Philip Kercher say they hope to expand the hospital's rooftop gardens in coming years.

The Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children's Hospital Green Team has a fresh take on the old idea of hospital food: growing herbs in rooftop planters for use in cafeteria and patient meals.

The planters, located on the east roof of the main floor of the medical center building, play host to a variety of greens, such as rosemary, cilantro, basil, and oregano. The garden can be viewed from the east-facing patient rooms of the main building and the skywalk that connects the main building to the adjoining children's hospital.

For now, the garden consists of four rectangular wooden boxes, each measuring about four feet long by three feet wide and three feet tall. Inside each wooden framing are two plastic planters, which also have holes in the bottom for draining. The garden provides just a fraction of the herbs used throughout the hospital's food services, but the staff members who maintain the garden hope to expand it coming years.

The garden was created earlier this spring, installed by hospital-employed carpenters and facilities engineers, with food and nutrition staff assisting with the loading of soil and planting. Michelle Duke, who is the production manager for the food and nutrition department at Sacred Heart as well as a Green Team member, came up with the idea.

"We saw lots of other places that had similar things, and I really hoped to have it here," Duke says.

The Green Team, which is part of every Providence Health Care center in Washington and Montana, was founded six years ago when the organization conducted an informal review of its sustainability practices, says Philip Kercher, manager of facilities at Sacred Heart and chairman of the Green Team.

After the review, it was decided that each medical center should form its own Green Team, Kercher says. The team meets on a monthly basis to look for opportunities to support sustainable projects. All the Green Teams also gather at a yearly meeting and give presentations on their activities.

Duke says the rooftop greens project also was prompted by a switch in the cafeteria to all fresh vegetables, instead of frozen or canned. Many of the fresh vegetable mixes come with herbs to toss with for added flavoring, which prompted food and nutrition staff members to ponder the idea of growing their own.

"We started thinking, 'wow, we could do this ourselves and not only save some money, but have a lot of fun,'" says Duke.

Kercher says the project delivers a strong message to patients and staff about healthy eating habits.

"Health care is now moving more toward preventive care," Kercher says. "We don't want to be reactionary; we want to encourage people to make healthier choices, and healthier eating choices are part of that."

Duke agrees saying the herbs are a great way to promote healthy eating.

"With herbs, you can really jazz up dishes without adding sodium," she says.

Kercher adds, "Locally produced foods are better for you and taste better, and we support that."

The message, he says, is one of the most important components of the project.

"This project symbolizes, in many ways, our commitment to the health of our community," Kercher says. "We're not just users and takers."

He also says that while he thinks the west side of Washington is more advanced in its healthy lifestyle practices, the rooftop greens project is one example of Eastern Washington's efforts to catch up.

"Many plans that started over there were brought over here, such as single-stream recycling," says Kercher. "Two years ago, we started to do some food waste recycling here, where certain food waste is extracted, stored separately and then handled by Waste Management. It's taken and composted and ultimately comes back as a soil builder. This lessens our waste disposal costs."

The only project costs, Kercher says, were for purchasing plants and seeds. He says hospital employees made the outer wood boxes and the interior plastic planters from recycled materials. A drip-irrigation system, also made with leftover materials from other projects, provides water for the plants. The food and nutrition staff, along with facilities staff, maintains the herb garden. No fertilizers are used on the plants.

So far, the herbs have been used in about a half-dozen meals, including a Tuscan-style chicken pasta dish and pho soup for the cafeteria, and a rosemary and lemon chicken marinade for the patient menu. Duke says the rosemary chicken, which is marinated overnight and offered on every fourth day, is a particular favorite. Duke says she hopes to be able to publish some of the recipes in the menus given to patients, so that patients later can use the healthy recipes themselves.

"We want to get away from the term 'hospital food,'" says Duke. "We want to provide items that have freshness and are creative."

And it's not only the patients and cafeteria patrons who benefit from the rooftop greens. Duke says her staff has begun to see the project as a reward.

"When you're in the kitchen doing routine things every day, it gets cumbersome," says Duke. "But to have the employees have the concept of garden-to-plate, we've gotten really excited about that."

Duke also says that others in the hospital staff, such as dieticians and office personnel, are on board with the rooftop greens project and are communicating the ideals of the project to patients.

For the future, Duke is hoping to plant more vegetables next year, such as tomatoes and peppers, as well as a wider variety of herbs. Duke says that if she could expand the project, she would like to use produce from the garden in foods such as pasta and garden salads. She also says she'd like more herbs to use in entres.

"It was our goal to start small and make sure we could be successful and to learn, and then to expand," says Duke.

The original Sacred Heart hospital, which was built in 1886 on Spokane Falls Boulevard, had a front garden and an orchard as well, Kercher says.

"So here we are, 127 years later, continuing that tradition," he says.

"Coming full circle," adds Duke.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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