How a hospital's community garden grew into something bigger

headshot of barry ronanWestern Maryland Health System has been delivering care under a value-based model for the last six years. Throughout those six years, we have determined that social needs have a considerable impact on the health status of our residents. As a health system, we not only deliver patient care, but we work with community partners to address both health-related and social needs by providing assistance with dental care, medications, transportation, shelter, clothing and food. One particular area of focus has been the importance of healthier eating. Recognizing the need, the health system opened our first community garden in 2015.

When planning first began, we reached out to potential partners in the community and the response was overwhelming. Grants came from a variety of unexpected foundations and companies. City government provided water access to the site and provides it at no charge. Local landscaping and home improvement companies donated topsoil, landscaping timbers and mulch and fencing was provided at cost. The local prisons donated plants, a university donated seeds and master gardeners donated their time. 

In addition to the 23 plots that were provided to those in need on a first come, first served basis, a children’s garden was created and fruit trees were planted along the perimeter of the garden. Keys were issued to the 23 newly found gardeners for a $10 deposit, which the hospital planned to return to them at the end of the growing season. (Note: None of the 23 gardeners asked for their deposit refund and continue to garden their individual plots in 2016.)  Health system employees maintained two plots, which enabled us to donate hundreds of pound of fruits and vegetables to the local food bank throughout the summer into the fall. 

In May of this year, we asked for help in getting last year’s garden ready and once again had an outpouring of support. Volunteers weeded the plots and rototilled the soil, and the prison system delivered plants for the volunteers and gardeners to plant. This year we added an orchard and planted 26 trees. An equipment rental company became our newest partner, providing whatever equipment we needed at no cost. The city provided a forester who tested the soil and advised us on what fruit trees would thrive in this location. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the students from the local college’s forestry program will maintain the orchard. 

Based on our success in 2015, the health system has created five additional gardens throughout the city this year. A landscape architect volunteered her time to design the new gardens, as well as a playground and an area for our food service staff to perform cooking demonstrations on how to use the different produce. One garden is completely handicapped accessible. In addition, meetings are held in each neighborhood where a garden has been created to ensure that the residents understand what we are doing and to keep them informed. All of our partners continue to assist with the additional gardens. Although some can’t donate items to the extent that they had for the first garden, they continue to provide items at cost.

We had no idea that our community garden would evolve to the success that it has in just one short year. We now have requests to create community gardens outside of the city in other parts of our service area. There has been an overwhelming amount of support from so many throughout the community in making this initiative successful, but most importantly, the benefit to those in need has been extraordinary.

The mission of the Western Maryland Health System is to improve the health and well being of the people in the communities we serve; I would have to say that through the community gardens, we are well exceeding that mission.

Barry Ronan is president and CEO of Western Maryland Health System in Cumberland, Maryland.