This summer, the UVM Medical Center employees are gathering on the beautiful rooftop garden at the Medical Center Campus to plant seeds and vegetable starters in their own community garden plots.

The UVM Medical Center gardener Lisa Hoare, dietitian Maryann Ludlow, and director of nutrition services Diane Imrie have created the community garden project to help employees learn about square-foot gardening and nutrition. For many participants, this is their first experience with gardening. Hoare and Ludlow will meet with the group weekly through the gardening season to provide assistance and advice. Then, Ludlow will use fresh produce to prepare a quick and healthy dish for everyone to share.

We spoke to Diane Imrie and Lisa Hoare about the new program.

What inspired you to launch this project?

Diane Imrie: This new program, which combines gardening skills and cooking skills, is our opportunity to bring together healthy foods and sustainability in a health care environment. Part of our LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification requires that we have an educational component. This is our first major inroad into accomplishing this. Healthy eating is also the best disease prevention program.

Lisa Hoare: We’re trying to highlight the critical connection between eating well and being healthy. We want to show people that they can start at home, that they can take control of their health (to a certain degree) by changing what they eat. A lot of people are intimidated by their own vegetable garden. This program provides a structured format for people to learn how to grow vegetables, how to use them in easy-to-make meals – then, bring that new knowledge home to their families.

How does this project build upon what the UVM Medical Center is already doing to promote healthy food systems?

Diane Imrie: Our official sustainable food program began in 2006. We were one of the first organizations to sign the “Healthy Food in Health Care” pledge. Our first garden was our Healing Garden, which is visible from our Cancer Center and provides fresh herbs and vegetables. We now feel more confident as growers, but it’s now time to build on our skill level and expand our knowledge to others at the UVM Medical Center. This program builds upon our mission to educate about good nutrition.

Lisa Hoare: On a personal level, this new program has built on my role as the UVM Medical Center’s gardener. Though  the rooftop garden was opened in 2010, this will be the first time it’s been open to our employees as a teaching space to  learn how to grow their own  herbs and vegetables.  As a food system, it doesn’t get much healthier or ‘local’ than growing in your own backyard, which is what we hope to encourage with this program.

What can participants in the class expect to learn?

Lisa Hoare: Participants will learn to grow using the Square-Foot Gardening method, which is well suited to beginners. It demonstrates how easy it is to grow a large amount of produce in a small space. Our gardeners are currently growing many crops including lettuce, tomatoes, beets, leeks, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. They will plant  different  types of crops to develop different skills, such as vertical gardening.  Each crop family also represents different aspects of nutrition.

Diane Imrie: What’s unique about this program is that participants will also learn from a registered dietitian. They will learn shopping skills, cooking skills, and what to look for in healthy foods. They will learn how to follow the seasons when it comes to preparing delicious and nutritious dishes. They will also focus on other components – proteins and grains – and how they come together to make a healthy meal. One cannot live on kale alone, right? Our dietitian, Maryann Ludlow, has a whole curriculum designed for them.

Why is it important to include a nutritionist in this program?

Diane Imrie: We as clinicians have another layer of value to add and that’s the nutrition aspect. You can preach to the choir, but farm shares can intimidate new people, so unless you know what to do and how to cook it can be a challenge to motivate people to take that step. The nutrition element is really why we are doing this.

Lisa Hoare: While gardening can be very therapeutic and beneficial physically, by reducing stress and burning calories,the point with this program is to be eating better for your health. Hippocrates said it best: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food..”

What is one thing you would say to people reading this to motivate them to start gardening? What first steps could they take?

Lisa Hoare: Often beginning gardeners grow too much and start with too big of a space. Grow what you can manage so you don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s OK to start small to gain experience. Even growing one patio tomato can be a joyous and fulfilling experience. You can get so much food from just one raised bed or a few small containers.

Diane Imrie: Find a mentor or garden buddy; someone who either knows what they’re doing, or is willing to learn with you. Gardening on your own is not as fulfilling as growing with company. Your garden should not just be for work but for pleasure, too.

To learn more about Healthy Foods in Health Care, watch this video featuring Diane Imrie.

Diane Imrie is Director of Nutrition Services at the UVM Medical Center. Lisa Hoare is gardener and maintenance technician at the UVM Medical Center. Learn more about healthy food at the UVM Medical Center by visiting the Center for Nutrition and Healthy Food Systems at the UVM Medical Center, focused on building sustainable food in health care. 

Maryann Ludlow is a registered dietitian at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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