California, Driving Food Home: Part I, Visits

Commonwealth Garden (Willits, CA)

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When thinking about hospital garden collaboration, it is hard to imagine something that is not sterile and unwelcoming. Most people concerned with wholesome foods and preventative medicine see the current medical industry as one of reactive as opposed to proactive approaches. Western medicine, in general, has been consistently not prioritizing providing the best food (and herbs) for their patients. However, after visiting Commonwealth Garden, we have seen the silver lining on a new approach to medicine.

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Ananda, Carissa, and Keith are committed to providing good food to aid in the healing process of the patients at the Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits, CA. Although only a 25-bed intensive care unit, the hospital is the one of the only ones in the country that boasts this direct garden-to-kitchen relationship. Despite the small size of the hospital, it is surely not a small symbol of what can be done. Recently, a chef has been hired to cater directly to the patients; they will soon be offered a menu to order from as opposed to being fed whatever the cafeteria has to offer. The garden works closely with the chef to design seasonal meals intended to highlight the bounty of the garden at the time.

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Established in 2007, they have built up a garden completely based on donations.  There are two current volunteer coordinators, Ananda and Keith, and one full time employee, Carissa, who run and manage the space.  They are currently providing 100% of the vegetables consumed in the hospital during peak season on their 1 acre of cultivated land. Their hope is to one day increase their fruit production, as their fruit trees planted in the beginning of their time on the property are beginning to mature.

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Hearing Ananda and Carissa play off of one another is inspiring, and the passion these two have for this project is infectious. Although providing food is their main goal, they also hold their space as important to cultivating a pleasant atmosphere for families and patients to come and enjoy the sunshine. Sunflowers were planted against the fence line that is adjacent to residents; green compost is made on site with out using any kind of manure. FDA regulations for “high risk populations,” such as hospital patients are extremely rigorous, and many compromises to traditional organic farming techniques have needed to be made in order to make their garden up to code.

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When beginning, they were the first hospital in the United States to have an associated garden. Ananda stressed how much paperwork and hoops they’ve had to jump through to get to where the farm is today, but she hopes to maintain her space as a model to prove that this sort of collaboration can be done. Thanks to generous community donations, they are able to continue thriving. Through our farm stops here, the town of Willits has proven to be an amazingly supportive community of local agriculture.

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There are hopes of incorporating more permaculture concepts and adding more perennial plants to cultivation, along with breaking ground on more of the property.  Ananda recognizes the “importance of creating enough of the good stuff to balance out the bad,” specifically talking about placing flowers at the head of most of the rows to increase the population of beneficial insects. This mindset also carries through her general lifestyle.

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As we continue our walk through the garden, we learn about the aromatherapy program also happening within the hospital, and how the Willits community members are pushing for more alternative medicine approaches.  Food is medicine, and our sick should be getting the best of it. Thank you Commonwealth for the dedication to this truth. We hope that more and more people look to what Keith, Ananda, and Carissa are doing for inspiration and drive.

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At the end of our visit, Ananda takes a deep breath in as she surveys the bounty she has created. “Do you ladies stop and recognize how lucky you are?” she asks. “So many people are not choosing this.” We all grin at eachother knowingly: “We think about it everyday.”

About Driving Food Home

The articles published by the Collective between June and September 2014 were written collaboratively by Ali Mediate, Sarah Anderson, Evelyn Block, and Sera Deva. Articles published by the Collective through November and December 2014 were written collaboratively by Rachael Saland and Sera Deva.

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