1. Free food will attract people's attention...even if it's kale.
After getting into the rhythm the first two weeks at the farmer's market, we decided to provide free samples and recipes utilizing some of the produce. The third week we featured red peppers with three different ways to prepare them and the fourth week we featured kale. Many people stopped by the farm cart who had never tasted kale before. They were curious, reluctant, excited, skeptical. But nearly everyone tried it. I consider that a success.
2. Find an ally in a position of power who will champion your cause.
According to the sources I spoke with, the idea for launching a farm on hospital property could not have happened without the support of the hospital's CEO. While it was a clinical dietitian and physician team who came up with the proposal, the fact that it fell on the right ears was critical to its success. The CEO is not only a supporter of health and healthy food in name and in print but he actually showed up to both the farm and the farmer's market during my time there and was clearly very proud of the project. He was simultaneously working on the hospital's new cafe, which opened during my last week there - sans deep fryers and fatty cuts of meat. It even has an elaborate system at the very entrance to help guide customers (70% of whom are apparently hospital staff) toward healthier options.
Since I started at the farm there has been at least one article a week published about the farm and its relationship with the hospital - and not all on annarbor.com. From the LA Times to Today's Dietitian, the media is taking notice of the work being done in this relatively small town. Not insignificantly, it is is also mentioned in Oran Hesterman's book, Fair Food, which was published this year and is making waves beyond just the food, health and agriculture networks. The lesson here is that you don't necessarily need to be working in a major city, on a large scale project, program or policy to catch the attention of people who matter. Acting within your own community, where you have relationships and opportunities (and possibly less red tape) can enable amazing things to unfold that can have ripple effects thousands of miles away.
4. It's never too late to learn.
My impression of farmers is that they've always been that way. Maybe they were raised on a farm, or at least with a garden, growing things, playing in the dirt, knowing that's what they wanted to do with their lives. Not so. Farmer Dan who runs the farm knows a tremendous amount about it, about organic practices, soil and growing methods but is relatively new to farming. He openly admits to us interns when he is experimenting with something new - a new crop, a new way of growing. He is teaching us and also learning as he goes. His approach to small scale farming makes it a lot less scary and a lot more fun. Through Dan I also had the opportunity to meet and volunteer with Diana Dyer, a dietitian who now runs a garlic farm full-time (actually, more than full-time). She and her husband had impressive careers before deciding to grow 42 varieties of garlic, which they sell at farmer's markets. They teach people about the power of growing and loving the food they eat.
5. Calories in are not always equal to calories out.
The amount of calories one expends on a small farm is not insignificant. The work is hard and tiring and physical. To grow these low calorie foods required a tremendous amount of work and I couldn't help but think that if we were all growing our own food, this whole obesity thing would be non-existent.
6. Once you grow your own food it's hard to go back.
It you know anyone who grows their own tomatoes, you've probably heard them utter something like, "I could never eat a supermarket tomato again." This might sound snobby, but in fact it's a perfectly legitimate statement. Because after eating your own vine ripened tomatoes, the ones in the store are simply not tomatoes. They look like tomatoes, are labeled and sold as tomatoes, but they are not the same. Leaving the farm I will certainly frequent the farmer's market more, but I truly feel a loss at not being able to go out into the fields to see where my food grows and enjoy eating it, knowing exactly where it comes from.
During my month on the farm I saw the weather change from hot and sunny to gray and rainy. And I learned that while I loved being on the farm in the summer, the wet season was a whole other beast. Thankfully there was lots of work to be done indoors in the hoophouses because I hate wet socks.
The fact that the farm was spawned by a dietitian and linked with nutrition and healthcare is not to be overlooked. While I may not be a farmer in the future (or I may! who can tell these things?) I certainly know that anywhere I go I will have the opportunity to build relationships between institutions and farms, communities and farms, schools and farms, all under the rubric of nutrition and health, which helps the cause more than one might imagine. During this rotation I met two very impressive dietitians who are using farming for improving nutrition and health status and, more importantly, as the best form of prevention.
I'm sure there there are countless other lessons to extract from this past month, but these are the ones that stick out the most. As a dietetic intern floating from one site to the next it's important to contribute as well as take what you can from each setting and then shift gears and move on to the next. In that vein and in yet another test of flexibility I will begin rounds in the GI unit at the hospital starting on Monday. After spending a month working on a hospital farm, I'm looking forward to working on the inside, with my clipboard, a team of physicians and, most of all, my lab coat.