How local healthcare systems leverage local farms for healthy food options

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The Farm at Trinity Health isn’t your average farm stand or CSA (community supported agriculture) program; it’s a model of how health systems can empower their community through local food.

Established in 2010, the Farm is a national leader in the growing field of hospital-based farms. It has two locations—one on each of the hospital campuses in Ypsilanti and Pontiac—where it grows vegetables year-round. The Farm at Trinity Health Ann Arbor (THAA) in Ypsilanti is one of the oldest hospital-based farms in the country. The 5 -acre farm includes a food hub for collecting and distributing food, the nation’s first accessible hoop house, and an outdoor classroom.

Cat Jardin and Kay Wilson sort plants at The Farm At Trinity Health.
The Farm at Trinity Health Oakland (THOA) in Pontiac started in 2020. It includes 1.3 acres of multifunctional spaces including food production, cut flower garden, herb garden, and the Kimberly Ebeid Pavilion, which offers a tranquil spot to share a meal or host community gatherings. 

As manager of the Farm at THAA, Jae Gerhart calls herself “privileged” to have her job. 

“We get to make a difference in people’s lives each and every day. Diet is the number one cause of poor health in the U.S. and over 600,000 people die every year from diet-related diseases," says Gerhart. "Our goal is to use healthy food to improve the health of our patients and community members so they don’t have to go to the hospital for preventable diseases."

The Farm at Trinity Health grows vegetables year-around.

Gerhart looks forward to Wednesday afternoons when members and patients come to the Farm to pick up their box of weekly produce and shop at the food pantry.      

“They share with us recipes, pictures of their kids eating healthy snacks, and celebrate big medical wins with us like losing weight and reducing their BMI to healthy levels.” 

The Farm has put up big numbers. In 2023 , it generated over $303,000 in revenue for 26 partner farms; packed and distributed 15,460 boxes of food through its farm share; harvested 20,000 pounds of produce; donated 15,554 pounds of food to 22,339 patients and providers (a $63,585 value); and distributed free produce boxes to 250 members experiencing food insecurity through the Farm Share Assistance program.

The Farm Share program is its most popular, fastest-growing program. 

Farmer Will Jaquinde works at The Farm at Trinity Health Ann Arbor (THAA).

“We’ve run the Farm Share Program since 2015—it’s our anchor program and it brings the most people to the farm,” Gerhart says. In 2018, we started the Farm Share Assistance Program to be able to provide the freshest, healthiest produce to those who are struggling to afford food. 

“This program has grown tenfold since its inception, and while it’s heartbreaking to witness the amount of need out there in our community, we are grateful that we can leverage our connection to the hospital to fundraise and grow the program each year.”     

Gerhart’s focus now is on expansion plans.

The staff at The Farm at Trinity Health, from left to right: Rose Oliverio, Jae Gerhart, Will Jaquinde, Kay Wilson and Cat Jardin.

“We’re looking for closer alignment to the hospitals and to healthcare. In the last few years, we’ve been able to get produce prescriptions from providers and we want to grow that,” Gerhart explains. “We want to focus on intervention. If we can show that [eating more real foods] has real outcomes on individuals’ health and reduces healthcare costs, we can fund the boxes through insurance.” 

Gerhart and her team are submitting grants to create studies to show how eating produce can affect prenatal mothers who are food insecure, those with cardiovascular health issues, or diabetes, youth with obesity diagnoses, and more. 

“We hope the grants come in so we can do the research,” Gerhart says. “We want to prove that this works. We just want to serve more people and the research can help us get there.”

Cat Jardin at work at The Farm At Trinity Health.

In the meantime, she’s creating relationships with providers so they know what the Farm at Trinity Health can provide patients. That includes aligning with Healthy Families, diabetes prevention programs, and the neighborhood family health clinics so that social workers know that the Farm can be a solution if their clients are food insecure. 

Gerhart is also working to create an efficient means of delivery for those who are food insecure, especially due to transportation issues, which is one of the main reasons for food insecurity.

Bronson Healthcare

Bronson facilities in Kalamazoo also source food and supplies from a variety of vendors, ranging from large distributors to individual farmers and food producers from the region. 

“Our partnership with the Valley HUB at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Bronson Healthy Living Campus serves as our primary resource for locally grown and produced foods, sourced from our region and distributed through the Valley Hub facility,” says Grant Fletcher, system director of healthy living & sustainability at Bronson. 

ValleyHUB is a business-to-business food hub that aggregates food products from 36 local producers and sells them to about 60 local retail, restaurant, and institutional food service customers. Thirty-six of these customers are educational institutions. ValleyHUB is a program of Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC).     

Jeff Burnell, operations manager for food & retail services at Bronson Methodist Hospital, holds eggs.
Local food purchasing is a priority for all facilities across the Bronson system that prepare and serve food, primarily for the hospital facilities.   
“Bronson’s local purchasing initiative enhances access to fresh, flavorful, and innovative food items,” Fletcher says. “This purchasing priority enables us to craft seasonal recipes and menus and shorten the length of time from harvest to plate, ensuring fresher, more flavorful food experiences.”      

Bronson’s goal is to source at least 50% of its foods from local and regional growers and producers, Fletcher says. Currently, that share is just over 30%.      

Bronson Healthcare has been ValleyHUB's anchor customer since KVCC launched the program in 2017, and was an integral partner in building the Bronson Healthy Living Campus. 

Kelly McHugh, logistics flex tech at ValleyHUB at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, loads local milk for delivery to Bronson and other customers in Kalamazoo.

“We share a commitment to strengthening the local food system in Southwest Michigan and improving nutrition and health outcomes in our community,” says Rachel Bair, Director of Sustainable Food Systems for ValleyHUB. “Bronson's food service consistently orders a significant amount of food from local producers through ValleyHUB, ensuring a stable base of operations for the hub and a steady outlet for our partner farmers. Especially in the beginning, this was a critical support.”

Bronson’s community partners have been instrumental to its success in sourcing as much food as possible from the local food economy. 

“Continued support for these critical businesses and from residents across all communities served by Bronson Healthcare Group will help to ensure the health of this vibrant and diverse food economy. We encourage residents and visitors to frequent local businesses of all kinds, visit local markets, and dine at locally owned and operated restaurants,” Fletcher says.

Corewell Health (formerly Spectrum Health)

Another Michigan healthcare system using more than just big-box food suppliers is Corewell Health, which has multiple locations mostly in West Michigan and is previously known as Spectrum Health. Corewell Health is the largest Michigan-based healthcare system, headquartered in both Grand Rapids and Southfield.

“We work seasonally with local produce houses to bring us fresh Michigan produce,” says Mick Rickerd, executive corporate chef at Corewell Health. “Our relationships with our partners allow us the flexibility to source the freshest ingredients from the most local sources.”      

Mick Rickerd is the executive corporate chef at Corewell Health.

Those community business partners include Revolution Farms in Caledonia, Square Roots Farms in Wyoming, Ingraberg Fresh Produce in Rockford, Del bene Produce in Detroit, Eastern Market Produce in Detroit, Shelton Farms in Niles, Nantucket Bakery in Grand Rapids, Field and Fire Breads in Grand Rapids, and a variety of local food and restaurant businesses in Galien, Novi, Milford, Ada, Hudsonville, and more. 

“It brings our teams pride to showcase the locally grown and produced products available in our communities and across our great state,” Rickerd says. “These relationships allow us to serve all Michigan beef, leafy greens grown locally, and spice blends to our patients and team members year-round, while being able to support our local businesses by increasing access to retail products through our markets and stores. Our teams like to know where their food comes from and that we are doing our part to support our local communities.”

Staff serve up food at Corewell Health's The Green Beet.

Corewell’s goal is to purchase 25% of their total food from local, sustainable, and diverse suppliers by 2025, which it is on track to achieve. 

“Food has an impact on both our personal health and our community health, and we strive to not only serve healthy food but also support our local communities,” says Rickerd. “For our customers’ menus, we are striving to reduce highly processed food offered and focus on more healthy-forward items. 

“By also focusing on foods produced by sustainably grown produce, humanely-raised animals, and sustainable fishing practices, we are supporting a healthy environment and improving the quality of ingredients used. By supporting our local businesses and growers, we help improve the health of the communities we serve and that our facilities are part of by keeping dollars local.”

Corewell welcomes conversation with local producers as it expands its offerings.

Photos by Doug Coombe and courtesy of Corewell Health and Bronson Healthcare Group

This story is part of a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability through Good Food in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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