Garden helps keep Aurora hospital’s dishes as fresh as possible

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AURORA | Thumbing through a binder full of dirt-stained pages detailing planting, germination and harvesting schedules for her garden behind University of Colorado Hospital, Elaine Granata looked proudly at the plots of veggies.

“The kale isn’t happy, but it’s okay,” she said, noting that the pH levels in the soil weren’t ideal for the hearty salad fixture. “And everything else seems to be okay, for now.”

The 1,500-plus-square-foot urban garden sits just north of the hospital’s Anschutz Inpatient Pavillion, in the shadow of towering hospital and research buildings on the Anschutz Medical Campus. And in the garden’s first year it’s already sent several pounds of fresh produce to the hospital’s Food and Nutrition Services department. That means some of the veggies served to patients, as well as items on the menu at the various retail food shops and catering services, are traveling just a few hundred feet on their journey from garden to table.

Victoria Franklin, the executive director of the Food and Nutrition Services department, said she and others at the hospital have dreamed about having a garden at the hospital for the past five years. This year it finally came true, she said.

Franklin, who is a registered dietitian, said the veggies coming from the garden are especially important for patients battling health issues.

“Generally the fresher you get something the more nutrients it holds,” she said. “The longer you have from pick to table, the more nutrients you lose.”

A recent harvest of snap peas were especially popular with the patients and staff, she said.

Granata tells Philip Stinar, the hospital’s executive chef, what his staff can expect a few days before the harvest and they start crafting menus that incorporate the produce.

For the kitchen staff, getting to work with super-fresh ingredients has been fun, he said.

“They’re a bunch of foodies and they understand the importance of what this can bring to what we do everyday,” he said.

The mix of food — from those snap peas to herbs and other veggies — has been nice too, he said.

“It’s been pretty abundant so far,” he said. “We can use every single thing she brings down to us.”

Still, the small garden is only making a tiny dent in the overall total food the hospital serves.

Stinar said the hospital serves about 1,800 inpatient meals a day and as much as 8,000 meals total each day.

Each week, the cooks there go through about 400 pounds of peppers alone, and Granata said that across the whole summer she will likely harvest between 100 and 200 pounds of peppers total.

Granata said she is encouraging UCHealth officials to set aside more space at future hospitals for urban gardens like the one at UCH. To really make a big contribution to a hospital’s menu, Granata said, a farmer would need acres, not a few thousand square feet.

Granata said she doesn’t think much about the fact that the produce she grows is going to feed sick people — she’s just happy to grow food for anyone.

“For me growing food for people is what it’s about,” she said. “Whether it’s unhealthy people or homeless people or just ordinary people.”