By Claire Dakhlia | June 29, 2018
The importance of agriculture is emphasized all over Emory, whether in the Educational Gardens on the Druid Hills campus or at the Oxford Organic Farm on Emory’s Oxford campus. Students, faculty and staff have been involved in these initiatives on campus, but until recently, similar initiatives did not exist in Emory University’s hospitals.
The term “hospital food” may not inspire much confidence, but Emory University Hospital Midtown (EUHM) wants to remove the stigma from their Savory Fare Café. Their goal is to brighten the days of the 1300 patients, and 2000 staff and visitors they serve daily by providing fresh, comforting and authentic food in their cafeteria. The desire for this kitchen to provide more local and seasonal food began about five years ago with the arrival of Chef Frederic Schultz, known to the hospital as Chef Fritz. As an emphasis on fresh herbs, greens and vegetables took hold in the kitchen, a few chefs with backgrounds in home gardening had the idea of growing their favorite herbs in buckets on the roof. Chef Archie Williams explains that fresh herbs and acids (like vinegar and lemon juice) are a great way to reduce salt in a dish, while maintaining great flavor.
This gardening initiative soon grew too large for plastic buckets, so EUHM’s Property Manager, Shari Creech, gladly accepted the task of designing a beautiful and functional garden. Now, on the small rooftop plaza of the original Crawford W. Long Building of EUHM, a garden bursts with fresh vegetables and herbs. Beside the picnic tables where hospital staff often take lunch are 3 20-inch deep 6×6 raised beds and three hydroponic towers. As the landscaping company for Emory University Hospitals, HighGrove gifted these hydroponic towers to model their use. Ms. Creech explained that the garden requires very little maintenance, as the watering is automated. The height of this building puts the plants in direct sunlight for most of the day, and prevents seeds from blowing up and creating weed problems. Apart from training tomato and squash plants to grow on their cages, the garden needs very little care after planting.
The chefs and Ms. Creech alike praised the lack of friction between this initiative and EUHM. “They have supported us since the beginning,” said Chef Fritz. “To be able to say that we are growing something in an otherwise dead space makes everyone proud.”
Making food for thousands of people a day takes much planning on the part of the chefs. Sourcing from local farms and sustainable sources often requires additional organization. Chef Fritz and Chef Williams say that it helps their process. They decide early in the season which crops they want, and plan ahead, working with Ms. Creech. As it makes up only a small part of the food in the café, the garden serves as a marker of seasonality.
This project shows that even in Atlanta’s densest areas, urban farming is feasible and can have a big impact. “We don’t mind bragging,” said Chef Fritz. Walking through the café, the chefs, cooks and staff in the café do not hesitate to tell you that some of the vegetables in the salad bar or on patient trays are straight from upstairs. While most of the food served comes from other sources, the pride that comes to the Café is one of the best products in the garden. It also lends to community spirit. Chef Archie Williams sometimes uses the mint in the garden to make Jamaican mint tea for hospital staff, which has turned into a sort of monthly get-together.
Since its inception two years ago, this garden has grown quite a bit, and shows no signs of stopping. Chef Fritz and Chef Williams look forward to growing citrus trees, and possibly even starting a beehive. “At the end of the day, we feed sick people. Eating well changes your day.” The Savory Fare Café will continue to create its own goals for sustainability, focusing on a balance between taste, seasonality and nutrition.
You can learn more about HighGrove hydroponic towers here.