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March is Nutrition Month: Bringing green-thumb initiatives to Northern Health facilities


NH staff holding a bowl of resh green picked from NH gardens
Erin Branco, Northern Health Dietitian, along with a resident, show off the fruits of their labour.

Major props alert! Northern Clinical Dietitians Erin Branco (Prince George) and Robyn Turner-Kloepper (Vanderhoof) have been chosen to present at the International Congress of Nutrition and Dietetics (ICND) in Toronto in June 2024. This is a major event that will bring together more than 1,000 professionals in dietetics and nutrition from around the world. I caught up with Erin to get a bit of an inside scoop on what she and Robyn have been up to –spoiler alert, we’re talkin’ gardens, NH facilities, and a whole lot of happy staff and residents.

Q: What’s the connection between your work and this conference?

A handful of fresh picked radishes picked from an NH garden
Residents help NH staff with the gardening, bringing items like fresh radishes to the menu.

Robyn and I have worked with a lot of other Northern Health departments to develop a gardening policy to be able to grow food at health care sites. With this policy, residents and patients can help grow food on site and we can use the food in our kitchens as part of daily meals and snacks. We'll be presenting on the development of the policy and then going through the process of where we're at now, and future plans for where we want the program to be!

Q: Have you ever done something like this before?

Yes, Robyn and I presented in June 2023 at the Quality Forum in Vancouver, and again at the 2023 Northern BC Research and Quality Conference, in addition to presenting for NH Policy Rounds (monthly education sessions from the policy office we share with broader audiences). I’ll also be doing a workshop in Ottawa at the Walk with Me conference in May with the NH Elder Program Executive Lead Tracee Dunn on this topic. We have had a bunch of super good questions about the program come in. People are interested to understand what we're doing in the North, and how we make gardening work with the unique challenges we face. In our presentation, we give a summary of everything that we’ve tried to build, and most importantly, we tell the story of what it's like for the residents who are involved in these programs.

Q: OK, from seed to crop, walk me through what this program looks like.

The policy is set up so anyone can participate in growing food.

Yes, it depends on someone volunteering to take it on, but this idea of growing food gardens throughout Northern Health’s care homes and hospitals is available to everyone. Currently there are recreation programs which already do a lot of gardening activities. Some grow flowers, some grow veggies -- but we were never allowed to use any of those foods in the kitchens for patients and residents. This policy enables our NH kitchens to use whatever they grow in their gardens and rec programs.

For example, at a long-term care facility, residents get to plant the seeds, tend to the sprouts in the early growing stages, water and weed, and be involved in the harvesting process! Then the kitchen can wash whatever was harvested and use it in meals for the very people who planted and grew the produce. But it’s not just about the end product, it’s about the whole experience. Not only is this an amazing activity from a nutrition point of view, but it’s an activity with mental health and social benefits as well. It's rewarding for everyone involved.

Q: What’s a must-grow?

Truthfully, anything residents want! If you’re part of the program and want to eat something and the kitchen wants to use it -- grow it! The only tricky thing is the amount of available growing space. We recently had a bunch of success with herbs at Gateway in Prince George, which has around 180 residents, including assisted living. It would take a lot of space to grow enough potatoes to feed that many people, but herbs are an awesome way to get bang for your growing buck, as a small yield can be used over a large number of plates -- then everyone can enjoy it. Plus, fresh herbs make the food taste so much better. They can be pretty powerful!

Q: Growing stuff in the North can be tough in the winter. Any tips?

Hydroponics are a cool way to grow in a cold winter climate like that of Northern BC. We were lucky enough to receive a donation for a hydroponics green wall through a partnership with CTAAN, the Center for Technology Adoption and Aging in the North at UNBC, and a company in Toronto called Just Vertical. We've been growing lots of herbs and lettuces on that wall since last June!

Q : What is your ultimate goal for this program?

The goal for this would be having  every new build with a dedicated space for growing food either inside or outside, plus having a staffing model that supports it! There's always a push for having more traditional and culturally appropriate foods served in health care, but it's so challenging to do that with one menu throughout the entire region. Being able to source more locally produced foods, whether that's produce, meat, or eggs would be amazing. Growing at our own sites is ultra local! I feel like this policy can sort of be a foundation for that in NH -- something that can be built upon and strengthened.

Q: How can people help?

Volunteer at NH! If anybody does want to volunteer in any community to help create this type of gardening program, be it NH employees, families of residents, or patients themselves, the resources are available. If a staff member is keen to start growing food at a site where they work, we're also starting a mentorship model to help support them, and I would be thrilled to connect with them.

Any help is very much appreciated!

Author’s note:

Thanks so much to Erin for the awesome update, and for the work that she and her colleagues are doing at our facilities. March is Nutrition Month, so there’s no better time to join the green thumb cause!