Briefing: Hydroponics for healthier hospital menus

Operating an onsite hydroponic farm can offer a hospital a host of potential benefits – and present a few challenges

Hydroponic produce grown in a container farm gives hospitals the opportunity to grow fresh, nutritious food right on their campus, which “perfectly aligns with their mission of health,” says Rick Vanzura, CEO of Freight Farms, a Boston-based agriculture technology company and reportedly the first to manufacture and sell container farms: hydroponic farming systems retrofitted inside intermodal freight containers. For hospitals that have a secondary mission of sustainability, hydroponic farming allows them to serve both missions through the production of hyper-local, sustainable food.

Produce grown hydroponically can make hospital meals healthier, Vanzura explains, because while they are nutritionally balanced they are often not very fresh. “On-site hydroponics and container farming can change that for hospitals. Hyper-local hydroponic produce grown on-site can also go toward to-go meals for continuing proactive healthcare.”

Hydroponics is the method of growing any type of vegetation by supplying all the necessary nutrients through water rather than soil, says David Brue, executive chef for Nutrition Services at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. He feels that they are “absolutely” a good idea for hospitals “if your organization can keep up with the supply and demand.”

With hydroponics “a lot of times you do not need to use pesticides to control insects and vermin,” Brue notes. “This is great for patients who are immunocompromised in a hospital setting.” The biggest benefit, he feels, is knowing what one has on hand and when it will be done growing.

“Fresher produce has more nutrients than bought produce, allowing us to provide patients and customers better-quality ingredients.” On-site access to produce reduces the need to source produce from afar, and to avoid the supply chain issues that come with it. The hospital has control over what it is growing and the quality of that produce, eliminating waste that can occur due to produce that passed its prime in transit.

Produce that is harvested onsite keeps its nutritional value: as longdistance transportation is eliminated, so is nutritional deterioration that takes place during this time. The result is produce served to the consumer at peak nutrition.

Growing environment

Chef Timothy Schoonmaker, director of nutrition services at Manatee Healthcare System and a board member of the Association for Healthcare Foodservice (AHF), explains that by using ultra-violet lights, water, a filter system and foodsafe chemicals to regulate PH, “produce and herbs are grown in a soil-less environment that simulates an actual growing environment.

The crops grow more quickly in hydroponics, yields are better and there is zero waste, which supports most sustainability initiatives.”

Schoonmaker points out that hydroponics makes even more sense for hospitals forced to deal with limited space. “You can set these up, if you grow your own, inside cafés and kitchen spaces, where they are easily accessible, creating a showpiece, and at the same time teaching staff where food comes from.”

He identifies additional benefits such as less waste, ownership in the food system, the ability to create new dishes based on what is being grown, using less processed food, and the creation of “a farm-to-table concept that you control and grow.”

Others see potential downsides. Tim Smallwood FFCSI, principal of Foodservice Design Management in Victoria, Australia, suggests that hydroponics and hospital foodservices “don’t seem a logical fit, to me anyway. Restaurants, yes – for herbs and items that are needed in smaller volumes. But hospitals generally produce food in batches, and depending on the number of beds, by tens or hundreds of kilos/pounds, or in my case tons, at a time. Producing sufficient volume of hydroponic vegetables to provide for the dietary requirements of all the patients in a hospital would require a seriously large hydroponic factory.”

Smallwood says he understands that “these are being built in Chinese cities, and the buildings seem to be about the same size as the hospital building. So, it might be possible for smaller hospitals and those running a room-service model, but not for my projects: currently a production kitchen delivering 22,000 meals a day.”

Thomas Mertens FCSI, of S.A:M GmbH in Kolbermoor, Germany, says that ROI can prove a challenge. “There are many startups trying to produce food in cities using hydroponics. The biggest challenge is the long return on investment. It takes time for the food sold to exceed the value of the initial cost – similar to a solar (panel) system. In the more elaborate hydroponic systems, there are air and water pumps and other technical components.”

Energy requirements have been another occasional downside, Mertens says. “This disadvantage mainly affects hydroponic indoor systems. In order to develop the genetic potential of the plant, optimal lighting of the plants is essential. Not so long ago, energy-intensive sodium vapor lamps were used. Now, energy-efficient LED lamps illuminate the plants. If the trend continues to generate energy from renewable sources, the energy consumption would be justifiable from an ecological perspective. In addition, research gives hope for even more economical LED lamps.”

Water-borne diseases are typically higher in hydroponic systems, Brue points out, “with the chance of disease affecting the entire crop due to shared nutrient supply. Root rot, mold growth and plant leaf issues are some of the more common diseases that can be detrimental.”

Looking ahead

Looking to the future, Vanzura says that he and his colleagues see the possibility of many hospitals having farms on their campuses. “The missions of growing fresh food and serving patient health so perfectly align, it’s a natural fit. Similarly, hydroponic farms can contribute to hospitals’ sustainability initiatives.”

Contributing to the alignment of fresh food and health is the concept of utilizing nutritious food as proactive medicine. Food grown in the hospital’s hydroponic farm can contribute to patients’ health during their visit, “and could also be a ‘prescription’ that hospitals give to patients,” Vanzura notes.

“Those patients could take produce home to kick off healing and a healthier diet.”

For example, AdventHealth Celebration hospital in Kissimmee, Florida, specializes in proactive medicine: preventing people from needing serious care, surgeries, or medicine through a focus on health and wellness. “Their Freight Farm [program] and the produce it grows fit perfectly into this initiative,” says Vanzura.

An on-site hydroponic farm, he adds, can also serve as an “awesome” perk for staff “and revolutionize hospital food to make it not just healthy, but also legitimately good, fresh, and hyper-local.”

Howard Riell

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