‘What is that thing?’: Hydroponic gardens spawn sustainability and nutrition conversations at Aspirus Health

Hydroponic gardens are now in use at all Aspirus hospitals.
Employee working with the hydroponic garden
Lettuce from the garden was used for salads and given to staff and visitors. / Photos courtesy of Aspirus Health.

Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital in Larium, Mich., recently served up free salads for all diners, all day.

That day marked the first harvest from the hospital’s hydroponic garden, and staff were excited for customers to try the leafy greens they’d grown. In addition to the cafe line, lettuce was also given out to employees and hospital visitors.

In December, Aspirus Health hospitals in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Larium is located, received their hydroponic gardens—officially bringing the gardens to the provider’s entire health system.

Maintaining hydroponic gardens was a system-wide initiative from Aspirus’ sustainability steering committee. The project was started with sustainability goals as well as improving patients’ nutrition in mind. (Aspirus aims to reduce its scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, and cut its energy costs in half by 2050.)

The gardens will help the system slash food waste as well as emissions associated with transportation costs and water and land use, according to Jamie Bourgo, member of the green team at Aspirus Keweenaw, which runs sustainability initiatives there.

In addition to eco-friendliness, improving community health is a key driver, too, said Lindsay Jenson, co-chair of the green team. “Our ultimate goal is to get all of these fresh, local, organic vegetables out into the hands of our patients and our communities.”

Maintaining the gardens

According to Bourgo, the gardens are easy to maintain. At first, there was some training involved, much of which was provided by ForkFarm, the company that distributes the vertical gardens.

The green teams at each hospital have taken on maintaining their garden, which involves checking nutrition, water and pH levels, and keeping an eye on new sprouts. Bourgo said these tasks adds up to just a couple of hours a month for each person on the team.
 Lettuce from the hydroponic garden. Lettuce from the hydroponic garden.

“There’s tons of stuff we’re learning. It’s pretty endless,” Bourgo said. “Each time you have from seed to harvest, you’re learning a lot of different tricks to growing them better, getting a better yield, how we use them in our facility. We’re building on it together.” 

So far, the hospital has yielded two harvests of lettuce, but plans are in place to try new vegetables. In the future, the team hopes to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and maybe even strawberries.

“It’s encouraging how successful our lettuce has been,” said Jenson.

Improving nutrition and mental health

One of the benefits of growing fresh locally grown produce is the impact it has on diners, according to Bourgo.

The hydroponic produce has more nutrients because it doesn’t need to travel and is more fresh when served. Additionally, the gardens themselves may have a secondary impact on patients’ mental health.

“The visual benefits of it is that bright light is there; it’s green,” Bourgo said. “It’s audibly soothing because the water is trickling down. There’s a lot of studies that go into reduced anxiety and depression that is involved with that.”

Winters in the Upper Peninsula can be long, and Jenson agreed that the greenery can help uplift patients and visitors.

In addition, the garden will be used in the hospital’s upcoming prescription for health program, which will provide free produce to patients who could benefit from extra nutrients. Typically, they will receive a voucher for free produce at the farmers market, but the weather in Michigan provides some limitations, so the team intends to bag up vegetables grown on site and give them directly to patients in the off season, Jenson said.

Another goal is to engage with diners about the benefits of locally grown produce. Consumers are often curious and excited about the garden, Bourgo said.

“They’re very interested, and they’re very inquisitive about what we have going on there. It starts as, ‘What is that thing?’” she said. “People are definitely excited. And also, they’re surprised. It’s not something that, in our area, you see a lot of.”



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