St. Luke’s Hospital

12 08 2009

By Emily Larson

In a bright blue plastic kids pool — one you assume has a whale or a mermaid on the bottom — grew circles of lettuce and spinach. The greens contrasted nicely with the vivid blue of their retired pool turned planter, and looked happy and healthy swimming in their rooftop spa. Along the brick wall sat eight tomato plants, neatly caged with chicken wire. Inside one, I spotted three ripe cherry tomatoes, ready for the picking. This rooftop garden also has an herb garden, sitting contentedly beside the satellite dish. “It’s a joke, really,” St. Luke’s Hospital Director of Hospitality Services Mark Branovan said of their new garden.

The Healthcare Environmental Awareness and Resource Reduction Team (HEARRT), an organization that addresses environmental issues in Minnesota Health Care, approached Mark about giving a lecture on the development their roof top garden. He told them no, they didn’t really want him to talk about the garden. He thought the garden too little to be of importance. On the contrary, the very fact that a hospital was raising a garden made it important and unique, regardless of the size. No one else is doing it on any level, HEARRT told Mark. While yes, the garden is the size of a kiddie pool, it is the baby steps that hospitals like St. Luke’s take that show other hospitals how environmental sustainability and fresh local produce can be incorporated into the hospital’s ethos. Small it may be, a joke it certainly is not.

Rooftop GardenThis is not the first time St. Luke’s has been the front-runner at environmental consciousness or fresh produce; the hospital is quite used to being an example to other hospitals around the nation. The hospital’s environmentalism has been featured in Time Magazine, Minnesota Public Radio, and newspapers around the state. In 2007, St. Luke’s and another Duluth institution, the Institute for a Sustainable Future (ISF), won the Governor’s Partnership Award for Excellence in Waste and Pollution Prevention, the first hospital in the state to win this award. St. Luke’s was the first hospital in the country to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge, an initiative by Health Care Without Harm to make the health care industry focus on local, fresh, and environmentally sustainable food. The pledge argues that “by supporting food production that is local, humane, and protective of the environment and health, health care providers can help create food systems that promote the well being of the whole community.” A hospital with a value system like this fits nicely into Community of a Plate.

Since Mark started at the hospital 10 years ago, he has worked to incorporate more local ingredients into the cafeteria menu. With the guidance of Jamie Harvie at ISF and the connections of hospital staff, Mark reached out to local producers. Now, St. Luke’s Hospital buys a wide array of local foods, ranging from buns to buffalo. Mark is positive, flexible and eager to try new things, which is why he works so well with Jamie at ISF. Jamie visited the hospital while I was there and pitched the idea of an environmental film festival to Mark and Julie one of the managers. Mark and Julie loved the idea and good-naturedly agreed to try and implement it. That seems to be the standard operating relationship between Jamie and Mark.

After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, Mark attended culinary school in San Francisco, worked as a chef in restaurants in San Francisco and co-owned a restaurant in Colorado before he got into the health care industry. Needless to say, he knows food and has strong food ethics. His position as Director of Hospitality Services gives him the ability to incorporate his own food ethics into the hospital cafeteria.

The St. Luke’s plate consisted of local ingredients from producers where Mark routinely buys food. For the main Buffalo Burgercourse, a buffalo juicy burger from Quartermaster Buffalo in Esko, Minnesota, on a bun from Johnson Lakeside Bakery in Duluth; on the side, a lettuce salad with broccoli from Lois and Farmer Doug at the Duluth Farmers’ Market, grape tomatoes from Bay Produce in Superior, Wisconsin; finally, a Thunder cookie from Positively 3rd Street Bakery, a mere four blocks away; and a carton of hormone-free milk complete the meal.

The first morning I arrived, Mark and I went to the Farmer’s Market. Each Wednesday morning, Mark stops at the Farmers’ Market on the way to work to pick up fresh local produce for the hospital. The Duluth Farmers’ Market is in a large red building with built-in stalls for around 15 vendors, selling everything from chocolate to fresh produce. Lois Hoffbauer is the chair of the Farmer’s Market. She and her husband, Farmer Doug, raise vegetables, Christmas trees, and everything in between. She contacts the vendors at the market and buys all extra produce they have, then Mark buys everything from her for the hospital. For the last four years, Mark has bought everything he can from Lois, but it is never enough to fill the cafeteria with local produce or satiate Mark’s visions of a fresh and local cafeteria.

On this particular Wednesday, I watched Lois move through the market talking to vendors, but no one had any excess. Mark got 17 pounds of broccoli from Lois and Farmer Doug, who have the largest farm at the market. As we carried two paper grocery bags overflowing with broccoli into the hospital, Mark lamented that he can never get enough produce for the cafeteria. “I want to fill up the back of a pick up,” he said. The challenge facing Mark is that most farmers don’t have produce to spare; they have to allot enough for the Farmers’ Markets, their CSA shares, and other commitments. After that, what little extra they have doesn’t go very far in Mark’s cafeteria.

BroccoliAfter we delivered the broccoli to the cafeteria, we took the elevator up the ninth floor, walked through an education classroom, and out a door onto the roof. After the indoor fluorescent lights, the natural light blinded my eyes as they struggled to adjust to the sunlight reflected off the shiny metal roof. Once I could see, Lake Superior materialized in front of me, massive and beautiful. You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful location for a hospital in Minnesota than on the shores of Lake Superior. Looking south I could see the iconic Duluth aerial lift bridge looming above the city, and up north there seemed to be nothing but lake.

I followed Mark carefully across the roof as the rocks shifted under my feet. Around the corner, next to the satellite dish, sat the garden. Mark filled up all the empty milk jugs in the rain barrel that captures all the grey water from the roof, poured them into a green watering can before getting to work. It amused me to see him water the little garden in his shiny black dress shoes, black dress pants, white button-up shirt, tie and official hospital identification badge. His tie he carefully tucked inside his shirt so as to not drop it into the water. I can imagine that instead of cigarette breaks, people in the hospital can take garden breaks, a brief respite from their computer screens to nurture a growing plant.

For this first year, the garden was an experiment. Now that Mark knows that vegetables can grow on the roof just fine, next year he will expand the garden and buy actual planters so the hospital community will literally enjoy the fruits of its labor. The garden is little, yes, but not only is St. Luke’s setting a precedent for themselves, but they are leading by example for other hospitals around the country. While St. Luke’s will never be able to grow all its own food, a hospital supplementing their cafeteria with lettuce sourced as locally as upstairs is a pretty rare accomplishment.

“Very few people want to be the first to do anything, worried they might fail,” Mark told me. With St. Luke’s as an example, 254 hospitals around the country have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, agreeing that environmentalism and buying locally can improve quality of life in the hospital. The fact that the health care industry is paying more attention to the environmental impact of their work is incredibly exciting given the great extent to which health care interacts with people’s lives. The Institute for a Sustainable Future is a key player in creating a Green Guide for Health Care, a rubric to evaluate the sustainability of health care facilities, all the way from the planning stages to building maintenance. The Green Guide and the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge are just two examples of the changing mentality of the health care industry as it accepts sustainability and environmentalism as a public health issue.

St. Luke’s cafeteria has room for more local food, and Mark wants to find ways to incorporate more. The challenge comes in finding enough food to feed the 1,200 to 1,500 people who eat in the cafeteria every day. However, the creative juices of Mark and the hospitality managers are more than up to the challenge. I look forward to seeing their work in the years to come when they can look back and laugh at the size of the kiddie pool because of how much they have grown.

To view more photos of St. Luke’s Hospital, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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One response

30 07 2011
Jan Naft

I enjoy the food every time I eat at the cafeteria. the price is reasonable and the people are friendly.
I would like to have a site where I can view the weekly menu online.

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