Creative Health Solutions Grow from Einstein’s Rooftop Garden in Norristown
A simple rooftop garden atop Einstein’s medical office building in Norristown may appear ordinary at first glance. But start to dig in, and you quickly unearth unique solutions to a number of health-related challenges faced by members of the surrounding community.
The garden, built last spring with funding from the Montgomery County Health Department, contains 11 4-by-4-foot raised soil beds that are home to a variety of herbs and vegetables, including green beans, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and assorted peppers. The space is tucked into a corner of the roof of the six-story garage at Einstein Healthcare Network’s Nicholas and Athena Karabots Medical Building.
Einstein’s Community Wellness Department developed the concept for the garden after Einstein’s 2015 Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) identified food insecurity as a leading health concern in the Norristown area. The CHNA is an annual examination of the health status and healthcare needs of residents in the Einstein Healthcare Network service area, while food insecurity can be described as limited or inconsistent access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food.
“We realized food insecurity affected a significant number of people in our community, and we wanted to find a meaningful way to address the issue,” explained Brandi Chawaga, director of Einstein’s Community Wellness Department, who championed the garden project. “Our goal is to increase access to healthy food and promote the benefits of healthy eating.”
Produce Offered Free of Charge
The produce grown in the garden is distributed all summer to patients at the Genuardi Family Maternal Health Center, Einstein Medical Center Montgomery’s outpatient prenatal- and postnatal-care facility for underserved populations, which is located within the Karabots Medical Building. Pop-up produce stands are set up in the waiting room once a week, where patients can sample recipes prepared using the vegetables and herbs being distributed that day. The produce is offered to the patients free of charge, along with the recipe.
“It’s so important for us to help make sure our patients—especially pregnant women—are getting proper nutrition,” said Rachel Johnson, site supervisor at the Genuardi Center. “This farm-to-table concept allows us to do just that.”
Last year, more than 235 pounds of produce was grown and distributed to patients at the Genuardi Center, reaching 105 women. Excess produce was sent to a local soup kitchen, where it was incorporated into meals that served an additional 200 community members.
Chawaga hopes to reach even more people in need during the 2018 growing season. The program expanded this year to include patients at Montgomery Family Practice (also located within the Karabots Medical Building), and it added monthly heart-healthy cooking demonstrations with freshly grown herbs.
More Than Healthy Eating
In addition to providing healthy food choices for patients, the rooftop garden program also helps to cultivate relationships within the Genuardi Center.
“It’s about more than healthy eating,” said Chawaga. “The food serves as a conversation starter for our physicians and staff, who are often working to build relationships with their patients, as well as ensure that they keep their next appointment.”
Beyond the benefits of healthy eating and relationship building, the physical garden area itself offers unique methods for treating an entirely separate population of patients in the area.
MossRehab’s outpatient location in the Karabots Medical Building provides the full spectrum of physical, occupational and speech therapy services. Andy Angelopoulos, a physical therapist with Moss, explained that the garden provides a range of possibilities for patients undergoing functional rehabilitation, starting with the stair climb up to the roof.
“Even if they take the elevator, it’s a nice uphill walk over to the garden,” he noted.
The garden also features a large, heavy, rotating soil composter, which can be used to help patients improve arm and trunk strength.
And sometimes the setting is all patients need.
“It’s great for patients who want to get back to actual gardening, as opposed to simulated activities in the gym,” said Angelopoulos.
Nourished with passion and creativity as much as it is with water and soil, Einstein’s rooftop garden has proven to be a valuable and sustainable source of healing power.