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By Brian Barth

It's not hard to grow a bit of basil or rosemary for when you need a pinch or two in your pasta sauce, but spices—the stuff that gives a real kick to chai or curry or goulash—now that's another matter.

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By Brian Barth

Trips to the garden center can set you back plenty, as can the many high-priced garden designers that are eager to come explain your soil needs for $125/hour.

Here's a few tips for taking control of your garden, without relying on fancy gadgets and experts.

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By Brian Barth

The average American household uses about 320 gallons of water per day, a third for irrigation and other outdoor uses. Collecting the water flowing down your downspouts in rainstorms so you can use it to irrigate in dry periods is often touted as a simple way to cut back. But setting up a functional rainwater irrigation system—beyond the ubiquitous 55-gallon barrels under the downspout, which won't irrigate much more than a flower bed or two—is a fairly complicated DIY project.

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By Steve Edgerton

The turfgrass found in lawns, parks, and schoolyards represents the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S. Across the country, turf guzzles up 34 billion liters (nine billion gallons) of water per day, demanding 31 million kilograms (70 million pounds) of pesticides and 757 million liters (200 gallons) of gasoline annually.

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daryl_mitchell / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Brian Barth

Urban soils are particularly prone to contamination. Fifty years ago, your yard could have belonged to a farmer, who, perhaps not knowing any better, disposed of old bottles of anti-freeze or contaminated diesel in a hole out behind the tractor garage. Or perhaps the remains of a fallen down outbuilding, long ago coated in lead-based paint, was buried on your property buy a lazy contractor when your subdivision was built.

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By Liza Bayless

Five years ago, when Lankenau Medical Center was confronted with evidence that it was serving the unhealthiest county in Pennsylvania, the hospital decided to embrace the findings with an unconventional approach: building a half-acre organic farm on its campus to provide fresh produce to patients.

The Deaver Wellness Farm at Lankenau Medical Center. Lankenau Medical Center

The teaching and research hospital just outside Philadelphia was in the midst of its own patient health needs assessment in 2011 when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released findings about health outcomes in Pennsylvania counties. Lankenau is officially located within Montgomery County, one of the state's healthiest, taking into account factors including obesity rates and access to reliable sources of food. But the campus is adjacent to and receives many patients from Philadelphia County, ranked the least healthy of all 67 counties.

"That was really telling because it showed that we were serving a really diverse patient population," said Chinwe Onyekere, associate administrator at Lankenau, of the study's revelations. The findings showed that the hospital's patients had widely varying access to healthy food and nutritional knowledge.

With more than 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country and consistently named one of the unhealthiest. In 2010, 32 percent of its adults and about 25 percent of its children were obese. The same year, 13 percent of the city's adults had diabetes, and Philadelphia County ranked highest among the country's largest counties for chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Across the nation, about half of Americans are estimated to have some kind of chronic disease stemming from health risks including lack of exercise, obesity, smoking and unhealthy eating. Treatment for these illnesses, which include asthma, heart disease or diabetes, has accounted for more than 75 percent of hospital admissions and physician visits in recent years.

This has caused some hospitals to look for ways to address health needs before a patient's condition has deteriorated so much that a hospital visit is necessary. At Lankenau, that meant providing its patients with a source of healthy food.

Students learn about fresh produce at the Deaver Wellness Farm. Lankenau Medical Center

Because the doctors, nurses and other staff were not farming experts, the hospital paired with Greener Partners, a nonprofit advocate for local food systems in Pennsylvania, to build and maintain what would become the Deaver Wellness Farm. Onyekere, who heads community needs programs for the hospital, oversees the project.

Since the farm's launch in 2015, it has provided more than 4,000 pounds of organic food to hospital patients at no cost. The produce is used for educational demonstrations and served in the hospital cafeteria. From its community needs assessment, Lankenau's staff learned that many of its patients, especially from West Philadelphia, lacked access to and nutritional knowledge of fruits and vegetables. So Lankenau now facilitates pop-up markets in internal medicine and the OBGYN practice wards.

While patients wait for appointments, medical assistants bring in fresh kale, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, arugula and other produce for them to select. The hospital also provides recipes, and, during an appointment, physicians use the produce to show how a patient can make healthier lifestyle choices.

In the Lankenau waiting rooms, hospital employees lead nutrition courses and food demonstrations. An employee might bring in the materials for a carrot salad, discuss the nutritional significance of each of its ingredients and then chop and assemble the salad in front of patients. Afterward, patients are given the ingredients and a recipe to try at home.

For years before the farm, health educators employed by the hospital ran roughly 14 programs in a health education center with two classrooms in the middle of Lankenau's facilities. Seven thousand to 10,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade took courses each year in physical health, like nutrition, as well as social health issues, like bullying and harassment.

Now, part of the mission of the farm is to serve as what Onyekere calls a "learning laboratory" for classes about healthy eating, and to create a hands-on experience for students to learn about nutrition, gardening and building healthy behaviors.

Outside the hospital, Lankenau—in partnership with The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health—incentivizes healthy food buying by providing coupons called Philly Food Bucks. These coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables are valid at more than 30 farmers markets and are given to patients who express the desire for better access to healthy foods.

"From the moment the patient walks into the door to the moment they leave the office, that whole experience is focused on improving their health," Onyekere said.

Drew Harris, director of health policy and population health at Thomas Jefferson University's College of Population Health, said that only recently have health providers begun to take accountability for addressing food insecurity among their patients. A former practicing doctor with a specialty in diabetes, he remembers having a very different philosophy about chronic diseases and overall patient health.

"Like many doctors, I probably blamed the patients for not getting well," he said. "I didn't really ask the question: Did they have the ability to follow the diet they were supposed to follow as a diabetic?"

Harris eventually became interested in the wider issues that led to chronic illness. While some patients are never taught health literacy, he said, for others "challenges in life can intervene."

"Not having food security—not knowing where your next meal is going to come from or whether you can purchase everything you need to purchase when you need to—is a major challenge," he said.

What's more, the tools for patient treatment taught in the medical profession have been so focused on prescriptions and procedures, Harris said, that doctors do not always learn the importance of stressing to their patients things like how to create a balanced diet and where to access those foods—knowledge that could keep people out of the hospital in the first place.

Though food insecurity is not a new issue, he thinks medical education is just starting to take a more holistic approach.

"There's a much stronger incentive to worry about why patients are not getting better and what we can do to avoid them getting sick in the first place, and a lot of it has to do with their social environment, their access to healthy food," he said.

Still, Harris stresses the need to pressure health providers. "Holding the medical profession more accountable for results—the quality of the care they provide—is going to make a difference," he said.

Onyekere estimates that Lankenau has provided farm produce to about 400 patients so far, and the hospital is about to launch a survey of patients to better understand the program's impact. Although she said patients have expressed that the farm is making a difference and raising awareness of how to incorporate healthy choices into daily life, the research survey will be a valuable resource for other health providers considering similar initiatives.

Going forward, Lankenau plans to grow the farm with four additional raised beds. Though this year's yield far exceeded initial expectations, staff took that as a sign that it can further increase production. Onyekere said Lankenau is also looking to donate its food to additional community partners, like local food banks.

Lankenau is not the nation's only hospital-run farm. Others include St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, both in Michigan; and St. Luke's University Health Network in Pennsylvania. But Onyekere is aware of none that have so extensively incorporated their own organic food into hospital life.

If America is to confront its growing chronic health epidemic, that integration is key, and, as these hospitals show, is already happening. "We're beginning to move from the patient outward to look more at the neighborhood and the larger environment in which that patient lives," Harris said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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In cities around the globe, an urban gardening revival is under way, with gardeners and farmers digging into backyards and vacant lots, replacing blighted eyesores with lush, productive vegetation.

But as an article in this month's Environmental Health Perspectives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences points out, urban soils are often heavily contaminated with metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other contaminants, prompting questions about the health consequences of urban gardening and providing some new solutions.

Investigators are trying to figure out how to minimize the risk of urban soils. Photo credit: Environmental Health Perspectives

Exposure to pollutants while gardening comes mainly from accidentally ingesting soil or inhaling contaminated dust, either while gardening or after tracking it home on clothing, shoes and tools, according to interim guidelines for safe urban gardening from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The risk is greatest for small children, who not only are most vulnerable to toxicants but also gleefully put dirty fingers directly into their mouths.

Produce itself tends to be relatively safe, provided it wasn’t grown in heavily contaminated soil and is washed before eating. Most food crops tend not to absorb contaminants and what little they do absorb generally stays in the roots. One notable exception is rice, which absorbs arsenic unusually well.

The article outlines the problem facing urban gardeners. No regulations in the U.S. specifically govern contaminants in soils used for food production and testing for them can be prohibitively expensive. Experts disagree on the severity of the problem, jurisdictional standards conflict and advice about how to remedy or work around urban soils has been fragmented and confusing.

And while alternative growing methods such as rooftop gardens and hydroponics avoid soil contamination issues, they tend to be more expensive and are unlikely to replace gardening in the ground any time soon.

Here are seven ways that urban gardeners can reduce the amount of contaminants in their soil, courtesy of the U.S. EPA:

  1. Build your garden away from existing roads and railways, or build a hedge or fence to reduce windblown contamination from mobile sources and busy streets.
  2. Cover existing soil and walkways with mulch, landscape fabric, stones or bricks.
  3. Use mulch in your garden beds to reduce dust and soil splash, reduce weed establishment, regulate soil temperature and moisture and add organic matter.
  4. Use soil amendments to maintain neutral pH, add organic matter and improve soil structure.
  5. Add topsoil or clean fill from certified soil sources. Your state or local environmental program, extension service or nursery may be able to recommended safe sources for soil and fill.
  6. Build raised beds or container gardens. Raised beds can be made by simply mounding soil into windrows or by building containers. Sided beds can be made from wood, synthetic wood, stone, concrete block, brick or naturally rot-resistant woods such as cedar and redwood.
  7. Your state or local city agency may recommend using a water-permeable fabric cover or geotextile as the bottom layer of your raised beds to further reduce exposure to soils of concern.

The article also advises practicing good gardening habits:

  • Wear gloves and wash hands after gardening and before eating.
  • Take care not to track dirt from the garden into the house.
  • Wash produce before storing or eating and teach kids to do so, too.
  • Peel root crops and remove outer leaves of leafy vegetables.

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