This New York City Hospital Feeds All Personnel & Patients From Its Rooftop Garden
Hospitals typically feature fluorescent lights, sterile hallways and the smell of disinfectants. At Lenox Hill Hospital in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, however, a flourishing green oasis mixes things up in that center of sickness and healing.
One of the hospital’s roofs now hosts a garden, complete with rocking chairs, picnic tables and large wooden planters overflowing with peppermint basil, Kentucky mint, tomatillos, chives, strawberries and more. Employees ranging from custodians to surgeons seek out the garden as a soothing escape from an otherwise high-pressure work environment.
Just three years ago, the hospital garden — the only one of its kind in the city — was a typical black tile roof whose door had been bolted shut to prevent employees from using it for cigarette breaks. But according to the garden’s creators, Dr. Robert Graham, Director of Integrative Health at Lenox Hill, along with his wife Julie, its roots extend much further back in time than the installation of the first plant bed. The metamorphosis from eyesore to attraction began years ago, in his family’s kitchen in Jackson Heights. Today, Graham is an integrative medicine physician who directs resident research at Lenox Hill and integrative health and therapies at North Shore-LIJ, but his first lessons in health care started with his mother’s philosophy toward food and inspired Graham to show his hospital community the role that food plays in well-being.
Graham and his wife really wanted to address that gap, starting with Graham’s own colleagues at Lenox Hill. But they weren’t sure how to begin. The eureka moment arrived fortuitously, when — as if living the setup to a joke — Julie shared a cab with a physician, a nutritionist and a gardener named Kristin Monji. The women were traveling from an urban agriculture conference at the Waldorf-Astoria to an event at the American Museum of Natural History. They got to chatting about green roofs, and Julie realized that her husband’s workplace might benefit from a green thumb. When she got home, she told Graham, “‘We’ve got to build a rooftop farm,’” he recalls. “That was the beginning.”
Victory Greens Garden drapes the roof of Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital in fresh vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. “A man eating lunch out in the garden last week came up to me and said that the garden is the best thing that has happened to the hospital,” Monji says. “Nurses have told me they feel less stressed at work because they know they have somewhere to go to decompress when they need to.”
A hallway stereotypical to a hospital frames a whiteboard with the day’s offerings — lettuce, cilantro, kale and artichoke, to name a few. Unassuming industrial doors lead out onto an oasis of lush, fragrant plants, and for a moment, it’s easy to forget you’re still in a hospital.
Equipped with scissors and plastic bags, doctors, nurses, secretaries and housekeepers are invited to pick from the available greenery on select warm-weather Fridays. Throughout the week, a sampling of the garden’s nearly 250 plants grace the hospital’s cafeteria menu — integrated in everything from tomato-basil pizzas to herb-roasted fish.
“The same kitchen feeds the cafeteria and feeds the patients,” Graham said during a recent event at the farm. “We’re just in the cafeteria now, but my goal is to eventually have enough to feed the house and be on every bedside table.”
“We’re in Manhattan, we’re in a hospital, and there’s really no place for our doctors to go out and take a breath. This is a place for people to distress and connect with nature. It’s a restful place with a real sense of community.”
Today the space is primarily for employees, but Graham and his co-workers are teaming up to brainstorm ways it can eventually be used in patient recovery. He thinks it holds special promise for stroke patients, who could explore the garden’s fragrant patches to exercise their senses and rebuild brain function.
Until then, this pioneer garden is challenging the common perception of hospitals as dour sick houses and breathing new life into the food as medicine mantra.
Victory Greens Garden is as beautiful a concept as it is a creation. For more info you can read more or check out some of the videos below: