MECHANICSBURG, Pa.—Dining Services at 115-resident The Bridges at Bent Creek, a continuing care retirement community in southern Pennsylvania, is giving the term local produce a new meaning. In May, residents joined staff from the facility’s foodservice management company, Cura Hospitality, in planting a garden that will provide produce that can be used in residents’ meals. The garden is planted in six raised beds.
“I came to The Bridges in January and I wanted to do something new for the spring,” said Drew Kendall, director of dining for Cura. “We had two flowerbeds out front, so I thought, why not start growing our own fruits and vegetables to use in the kitchen? I believe in local produce and what’s more local than having it right in your own backyard. So we went off of that idea and started having monthly meetings. It worked itself into a club that we call the Home Grown Club.”
The Home Grown Club met for several months to determine what should be planted. In May, members of the club along with Kendall and Mike DeWalt, owner of DeWalt’s Green House, planted seeds for the facility’s garden. DeWalt donated the seeds. The garden’s plants include fresh herbs, such as basil, thyme and mint, four kinds of tomatoes, yellow corn, sweet corn, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, three kinds of peppers, watermelon and cantaloupe.
Originally the garden was to be planted directly in the ground, but the soil was not conducive to a garden. “We tried to rototill, but we realized that there was six inches of shale,” Kendall said. “That’s when we went to the raised beds.”
Despite rainy weather, Kendall said the Grower’s Day was a success. “One of the things The Bridges really stresses is being active,” he said. “I thought that this would be a way for me to start my own club and get the kitchen and the residents working hand in hand.”
Bonding time: Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Cura, said the community’s garden builds camaraderie between the residents and foodservice staff. “The residents take ownership of the gardens, and we see them as being a building block for us to be involved with the residents in the communities we are servicing. It’s just a good way to get interaction from our residents and get them involved in some of the things that they are ultimately going to consume.”
The residents aren’t the only ones benefiting from the garden. “We found out that some of the residents were farmers before they retired, so they provided some insight into what we should be planting and how we should plant it,” Moore said. “They gave us a lot of direction and we learned a lot from them.”
One thing Moore said he learned from the residents was that the growing styles of corn and cantaloupe complemented each other. “There was corn growing in a few rows and then a cantaloupe plant. Within the same plot of land they had cantaloupe and corn almost on top of each other. I said, ‘this is going to be pretty tight’ and Drew said that no, it was a positive thing. One of the residents, who was a farmer, said that these two plants grow very well together. The corn acts as a shade plant and the nutrients that the corn is pulling, specifically nitrogen, are different than those that the cantaloupe pulls so they can grow well together.”
Currently, Kendall has only been able to use the herbs, scallions and garlic chives in the residents’ meals, but he plans to add more ingredients to the menu mix as the plants grow. A Home Grown logo is placed next to menu items that include components from the garden.
Kendall said foodservice staff and residents help tend the garden and that residents are free to use the garden’s bounty in their own kitchens.
The next step is expanding the community’s composting program. Food scraps and grass clippings are being composted for use as a fertilizer in the garden.
Green team: Moore said community gardens are only one green initiative that Cura is rolling out in its long-term care facilities. A green team, made up of operators and Moore, decides what issues to focus on. They then write a step-by-step curriculum on how to start that initiative in an individual location. Some of the initiatives the team has written manuals for include composting 101 and backyard composting.
Moore said they are working on a manual for organizing a local food event with farmers and the community and increasing the offering of local items beyond produce to include milk and pork.
Cura’s approach to going green is to allow individual locations the freedom to choose which initiatives they want to implement in their locations. “We don’t want to dictate to the communities,” Moore said. Instead they provide the research and a blueprint and allow individual operators to modify it to best serve their location.
One example of this approach was done with the company’s reusable canvas bag program. Instead of giving the bags to every community, setting a price for the bags and developing a marketing campaign, Cura decided to allow the operators to roll out the program as they saw fit. “We felt that if we didn’t have the support from within the management at the facility, that green initiative was never going to be accomplished,” Moore said.